1985 happened 30 years ago and so did I. Now I’m watching all of the films from the year of my birth. Yes, all of them.
Clue (dir. Jonathan Lynn) 94 min
Release Date: December 13, 1985
Cast: Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Martin Mull, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Leslie Ann Warren, Lee Ving
Writer(s): John Landis, George Folesy Jr. & Jonathan Lynn
Synopsis: Six guests are invited to a house, each a with a connection to Mr. Boddy, a man who is blackmailing them. When Boddy winds up dead, everyone becomes a suspect.
Review: I get why a cult formed around Clue in the years since it left theaters and that’s because it was inadvertently built for smaller screens. With all of its medium-to-wide shots and classically trained actors bounding through a dialogue-heavy script with balletic grace, this is more sitcom than movie. Tweak it a little and you could rewrite this as a Roseanne Halloween episode, easily.
That’s also what makes this interesting in the face of the other most obvious example of a board game adaptation, Battleship. By comparison, Clue came in at 1/15th of the budget of that film and runs about 50 minutes shorter. It’s also self-aware in a way that maybe only the Lego Movie has been since. There’s nothing of the Michael Bayesque patriotism that uncomfortably coexists in, say, a movie where Rhianna plays a Naval officer who fends off alien spacecraft with a machine-gun turret. This is the movie you get when the smart, funny nerds at your studio seize on a project they can’t believe anyone wants and use it as a vehicle for an innuendo-filled throwback to locked room mysteries of the past.
The problem is, being the lesser of two evils doesn’t make you not evil. Clue still doesn’t work as well as you hope it might, especially with a cast this strong. Madeline Kahn has one funny moment in the whole movie and she improvised it AND it was buried in one of the three (gimmicky) endings from the film’s original release. That means only a third of the (very) few people who saw this movie theatrically got to see that moment. What a jip, right?
Eileen Brennan is easily the best cast member, edging out Kahn, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Tim Curry if only because she brings a completely different energy than the rest of the cast. As Mrs. Peacock, she’s not just the most visually striking character of the bunch, she’s also the most veteran, which intrinsically makes her acting different. Not that this was a cast of young kids, but they’re mostly of the same era, playing at a familiar frequency. Watching Brennan play against them is like seeing a non-improviser in a scene with Will Ferrell. It’s almost as if she can’t speak their language but doesn’t understand that she can’t. She brings old school chops to the table and she’s lovely for it. Tim Curry is the runner-up, though I suspect that’s sacrilegious to even suggest. He’s asked to do the most verbally and physically, nailing all of it. It’s just that the cumulative effect is exhausting, even at 90 minutes.
Every time I watch Clue, I go in hoping the next viewing will reveal something I’ve been missing all along and somehow, by the end, I wind up missing it again. That opening is so promising, with the painterly, gothic mansion appearing in flashes of cartoon lightning as the rain pours down in sheets. You can’t wait for the doors to close behind the last guest and for the fun to start. But this is a movie where the fun gets talked around and the best lines/moments feel incidental in the face of the mystery. I love it when Martin Mull’s Colonel Mustard pours himself a neat glass of scotch before splashing the rest carelessly into three more glasses, but that’s an outlier. This is a movie that’s mostly content to tell Mae West-style boob jokes and motormouth through theories about who murdered who with what and where. It’s a game that you aren’t allowed to play and that’s no fun.
Better Off Dead or The Sure Thing: Somewhere in the middle
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