Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond