Clue (1985) – dir. Jonathan Lynn

One of the joys and minor frustrations of dissecting a film is why a film works at all. As a personal rule, I do my best not to criticize films based on how well they accomplish something next to another film. For example, I might believe that Star Wars has more to say about rising to the occasion and making sacrifices for some greater good than ,say, Election. In 99.9% of cases, like that one, such comparisons are arbitrary and a symmetrical. Yet, I find greater difficulty in explaining why the mechanics of one film are a detriment to that production, while similar shortcomings may not be as important to me in another picture. Ultimately, how a film feels is more important to me than whether a film works in the most literal terms, which is objectively overrated.

If one is judging a film’s narrative merits on plot holes and plausibility, Clue is a genuine nightmare. Jonathan Lynn’s board game adaptation should not work, and on paper, does not make very much sense. And yet, that doesn’t seem to matter, because Clue is so clever and so much fun, and the only game adaptation ever–depending on how one categorizes The Lego Movie–that is genuinely enjoyable. With one of the strongest comedic ensembles of any 80s comedy, a sharp-witted script, and a genuine sense of suspense looming over a joke machine disguised as a whodunit, Clue is as delightful as they come.

Though Clue is a murder mystery, the film takes quite a bit of time before anyone is actually murdered. We’re first introduced to a dinner party hosted by the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), who has specifically invited a slew of aliased guests: Col. Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Khan), Ms. Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), Prof. Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), and Mr. Green (Michael McKean). Though they’ve never met, they’re gathered in a large, secluded mansion, their only connection being their blackmailer Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving, which, what is the frontman of Fear doing in this movie? Who said casting was allowed to be this inspired?)

Upon introducing one another, offering up a few personal details including the reasons behind their extortion, Wadsworth reveals he has thrown this party in the hopes that they will all turn over Mr. Boddy. When Mr. Boddy proposes they call try to kill Wadsworth–introducing the familiar cast of weapons–pretend as though the whole affair never happened. After Mr. Boddy turns out the lights, a panicked frenzy breaks out in the dark, only to be discovered dead once the lights are back on. Soon after, they find the cook has been murdered, as well. And then Mr. Boddy is murdered again–having apparently faked his death the first time. And because they more or less are with each other at all times, the group presumes the killer must be a third party hiding somewhere in the house. They split up in pairs, and are intermittently interrupted by a series of strangers. Body after Boddy piles up, getting ever closer to the identity of the killer(s?). Plot-wise, Clue is surprisingly spartan, giving more room for the cast to banter and riff.

Though Clue has plenty of reveals, the ending is perhaps the trickiest to spoil, as the film has three endings–an unsuccessful monetary gambit that mainly kept audiences away. Not to mention an unfilmed fourth ending–which I recommend reading up on, because the scene may have been the best of the bunch. With that in mind, none of the endings really add up. If mystery stories live and die on their sleight of hand, Clue can’t quite pull off any of the three tricks attempted. The writing is too messy and improbable. And yet, this somehow doesn’t matter. Even though each ending has a couple leaps in logic–often outright cheating by giving away too much in the edit–they’re all entertaining in their own way–though, most agree that ending B is the weakest of the bunch, which is completely agreeable.

This isn’t to say Clue doesn’t care about the sense of discovery or tension. Not at all. Clue is often very suspenseful, with Lynn masterfully mining comic beats from equally startling moments. This, to say nothing about John Morris’s ominous score, and as well as Victor J. Kemper’s ability to capture moments of uneasiness and some great visual comedy–again, often in the same beat; take the reveal of the cook’s death, which is then called back to at the end of the film to similar hilarity. If anything about Clue is underrated, some words must be given to the craft on display, never getting in the way of, and often elevating what might not work as effectively on paper.

Of course, Clue functions best with a script of terrific punchlines and one-liners, and a murderers’ row of performers to effortlessly bounce off one another. Not enough can be said about their impeccable chemistry, nor the way Lynn directs them, particularly in the handful of set pieces that hold the film together–take the group’s struggle to free Ms. Scarlet and Col. Mustard from the lounge, as the two are trapped in the room with another corpse; the scene is one mad scramble, but Lynn holds everyone and everything together, with the sequence operating as one riveting and hilarious short story by itself.

Clue is probably best remembered for Lynn’s and John Landis’s dialogue–though, Mrs. White’s “flames on the side of my head” bit is all Khan. This picture is littered with little turns of phrase ([Prof. Plum:] What are you afraid of, a fate worse than death? [Mrs. Peacock:] No, just death. Isn’t that enough?) and communicative snags (take Col. Mustard’s trying to figure out Wadsworth’s ambiguous replies to the colonel’s concern of whether anyone else is in the house). Everyone has a moment, whether that’s Prof. Plum’s creepy “It’s you and me, honeybunch,” to Mrs. Peacock, or Wadsworth opening the door for Mr. Green, yelling at the house’s rottweiler  to sit, only for Mr. Green to quickly take a seat. The writing is lively, and barbs are calculated and unforgettable, lending a sort of dark charm that never feels mean-spirited or misanthropic.

Better than any other game adaptation, Clue captures the experience of sitting around a board, rolling dice, and silently playing detective with friends. Moreover, the film does this without ever feeling like an extended commercial. More than anything, Clue wants to have a good time. Instead, Clue has a great, great time, having aged like fine wine. Even a line like Ms. Scarlet’s excited delivery of “Who are you? Perry Mason?” is never not funny because of Warren’s sincere enthusiasm. Clue should not be so good, and yet the film finds a way to make the pieces fit.

Rating – 9.2/10

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