The power of a successful spoof is how surgically you are able to deride the tropes that make up the thing to be spoofed. The best recreate those cliches with as much if not more verve than the source material, but also mine points the audience hadn’t even thought of. Sometimes, send-ups add another meta-layer of chicanery — an element that’s not mere about the object of the spoof, but the way in which it’s told.

Well, The Happytime Murders is meta-meta-meta parody, hodgepodging together a variety of topics in what could be a stew of elements married in a spicy broths of laughter. And while there are laughs, and many of them, it’s so diffuse the film never fully comes together.

At heart, it’s a tribute to 1940s-style hard-boiled detective film noir: A disgraced former cop, a disgruntled ex partner, a femme fatale, a “set-up.” Only about half the characters in the film are not humans, but a second class of citizen: puppets.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Who Framed Roger Rabbit did the exact same thing 30 years, only with cartoons instead of puppets. Roger Rabbit itself stole the basic plot from Chinatown, the best of the neo-noir films that started in the 1970s, which were themselves reimaginings of film noir which… Ugh, it goes on and on like a kaleidoscope.

But Happytime also shoehorns in nods to blaxploitation films, especially in how the puppets are seen as the underbelly of society, and also has to contend with the spectre of Avenue Q, the Broadway musical that spoofed Sesame Street by sexualizing and coarsening the puppets’ behavior and language. Plus the presence of Melissa McCarthy doing her shtick draws a direct line to the spate of gross-out comedies she has given a signature spin to.

In other words, everything that happens in Happytime has been done before, and done better. Then again, just because you aren’t the first doesn’t mean you can’t be good. Or at least OK.

A huge share of the jokes here derive from contrasting the usually squeaky-clean image of Muppet-style characters (Brian Henson directs and produced the film, though the Sesame Street organization have nothing directly to do with it) with perversions, F-bombs, nudity, sex and other “adult” actions we simply don’t associates with puppets. There’s a scene with a cow being milked, and another of an tidal-wave orgasm, that might warrant a quick chuckle if, say, Steve Buscemi did them; the fact they are fabricated actors just makes it much, much funnier.

The plot is not mere a trifle, but irrelevant; as a buddy comedy, McCarthy plays second-string to her felt counterpart, and her zingers land with more thuds than bangs. But at under 90 minutes, it zooms along inoffensively enough. I imagine most people going to see it will know what to expect, and will basically leave satisfied; on the other hand, I doubt anyone will emerge surprised by something grander. In the end, the film itself is like the Basic Instinct gimmick one of the female puppets pulls off: An entertaining but tangled yarn.

— Arnold Wayne Jones