Clue (1985) / Comedy-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, innuendo and language
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Lesley Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Madeline Kahn, Colleen Camp, Lee Ving, Bill Henderson
Small role: Howard Hesseman, Jane Wiedlin
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Screenplay: Jonathan Lynn
Review published June 12, 2014
A nice cast can't make up for Jonathan Lynn's (My Cousin Vinny, The Distinguished Gentleman) not-as-witty-as-he-thinks wordplay and forced madcap slapstick direction, in a story he developed with John Landis. Though it has come to have a bit of a cult following over the years, one wonders if what people are feeling isn't so much nostalgia for this movie as much as nostalgia for the kinds of old-fashioned movies, mysteries and farces that Clue pays homage to.
Clue is, of course, an attempt at giving a comic narrative to the popular Parker Brothers board game of the same name (or Cluedo outside the U.S.). Its setting is a large New England mansion in 1954, which means references to the Red Scare, J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy, and the music and lingo of the era are abundant. It's not an overtly political movie, even though all of the main players seem to have a political tie that makes them targets for blackmail. After receiving a mysterious letter, six Beltway players are traveling to the location under pseudonyms, all greeted by the charismatic butler, Wadsworth (Curry, The Hunt for Red October). A seventh guest, Mr. Boddy (a curiously dubbed-over Lee Ving, Nightmares), soon joins them, and is immediately pushy, rude, and the likely blackmailer. He gives them all gifts that include items that can be used as weapons (a gun, knife, lead pipe, etc.) against Wadsworth, and when the lights go out, a scuffle ensues, only to reveal Mr. Boddy is now a dead body.
Although an obvious throwback to the snappy slapstick comedies of the 1930s and 40s, the movie is filled with all manner of groan-worthy double entendres that might have looked funny on paper, but are clumsily doled out by Lynn despite some choice actors delivering the lines. It all feels very forced and deliberate, which makes the zaniness feel too artificial, especially as the film devolves into having the cast all run around from room to room in an effort to gloss over gigantic plot holes in the explanation of the film's core mystery. There is a theatrical quality to the performances and setting that might have worked as a play, but as a film, it's not very cinematic, no matter how many times we see the actors all run in unison like the Scooby-Doo gang from one end of the house to the other, panting out of breath.
Clue does move at a brisk clip at about 90 minutes, probably because Lynn determines to keep the action fast-paced. On its initial theatrical release, audiences were treated to one of three distinct endings (depending on theater), with different culprits, at the conclusion of the film, which should tell you all you need to know about what a waste of time it is to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. All three are shown consecutively for television and home video showings.
As Clue isn't a real whodunit, or an effective comedy, I can't recommend the film to anyone who isn't solely attracted to the performances of its ensemble of character actors. Curry is the most memorable, with a nice over-the-top turn by Eileen Brennan (FM) as Mrs. Peacock, while Colleen Camp (D.A.R.Y.L.) as maid Yvette and Lesley Ann Warren (Color of Night) as Miss Scarlet provide ample eye candy.
However, it's all a bells-and-whistles experience, only of interest as an energetic diversion, as, instead of seeming effortless, it is very evident that it's working overtime to be entertaining. If only it had the material to back up the exuberance, perhaps we wouldn't see it sweat so profusely to squeeze out every laugh it can. Better to watch any of the films from which Lynn draws inspiration. For a modern-day take on the murder mystery comedy, 1976's Murder by Death does the same, but better.
©2014 Vince Leo