A man’s been found dead, and the game is afoot in “Knives Out,” a new thriller that would have you believe it’s the best of both Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes combined into one devilishly clever murder mystery.
But there’s a fine line between clever and convoluted, and assembling an all-star cast and making them interesting, and offering a story that’s worth telling and an ending that satisfies.
Which is to say that while the movie has its moments, it falls short on most of these elements.
This is a great shame considering I and many other adults have seen previews of “Knives Out,” reacted with “Everybody’s in that movie!” and anxiously awaited what appeared to be great fun.
To set up the game being played here, popular mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey is celebrating his 85th birthday, and he’s bringing together his deeply dysfunctional family at his mansion for a reunion.
This is a reunion with a purpose that doesn’t sit well with those invited.
When the party ends, Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is dead, and everyone wants what’s coming to them — financially that is — in this picture that is as much a black comedy as it is a Christie-inspired whodunit.
Now if only the comedy worked, confirmed by sitting in a full theater with a quiet audience.
This is a movie that desperately wants to compare favorably to the silliness of “Murder By Death” and even “Clue” on the laughs side and in blackness to movies like “Gosford Park” and “The Last of Sheila,” a personal favorite.
Writer-director Rian Johnson proves that this is an impossible task to pull off and ends up making a film full of unlikeable characters that feels like it wears a smug smirk on its face.
But a man is dead, and his house is still full of family, which is now joined by local police (LaKeith Stanfield) as well as a keen detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with an off-putting Southern accent), who will probe their motives and more.
Now lets take a look at that family, and that great ensemble locked in a room together by Johnson (the creative force behind “Looper” and “Brick,” an exceptional teen mystery).
There’s Ransom (Chris Evans) as a grandson and spoiled playboy; Marta (Ana de Armas) as Harlan’s devoted caregiver, more a friend than medical staff; and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s oldest daughter who runs a real estate firm with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson).
Then there’s Joni (Toni Collette), a “lifestyle guru” type and the wife of Harlan’s dead son; and their daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), a student/social activist; and Walt (Michael Shannon) the youngest son and manager of dad’s publishing firm, along with his teen son Jacob, who’s glued to his phone.
There are a few others in the building, most amusingly Harlan’s mother who appears to be 110 and is probably the film’s funniest character by saying nothing, and a side detective who knows all of Harlan’s book plots and is more interested in whodunit fun than who to lock up.
There’s a lot going on here, and the accusations are fast and furious.
The old mansion with its secret doors and windows, which feels as one character says “like it’s one big Clue board,” is perfect for the setting.
But the end result was that I smiled occasionally, laughed out loud twice and kept wishing the movie was as smart as it thought it was.
If only I could have solved the real mysteries.
Why gather all of these great stars and talented actors and give them almost nothing to do but have them make wildly declarative statements about other members of this entitled family while everyone else stands around looking aghast at each statement?
And why give Craig that accent that makes the smart guy sound cartoonish, and why give Curtis that awful spray-tan that colors her performance badly, and why bring in immigration politics to such a degree?
These elements do not entertain, but rather detract from enjoying the game.
And why make all of these characters so unlikeable?
I expected greedy when it comes to who-gets-what now that the rich old man is dead, but these are truly awful people, and Johnson doesn’t have the goods to make them as outlandish as “Clue” characters or as spiteful as Tracy Letts made the clan of “August: Osage County.”
I left not caring what the future held for a single one of these characters.
By the conclusion of “Knives Out,” I was left with too many questions unanswered, and that’s when you know your murder mystery has gone wrong.