Film: Without a clue
Some say that the only criteria by which you ought to judge a comedy is whether it makes you laugh or not. On a subjective level where you pick films for your home DVD collection, I guess you have to account which comedy is funny to you, but there is so many different senses of humor, that we would be inclined to value some shallow gross-out comedy that gets it’s laughs by throwing feces at us or by having characters with embarrassing names as much as some of the greatest films of our times. Because it’s funny to someone too, perhaps even to many, many people.
But then, general rules for judging one film, whatever they are, shouldn’t exclude comedy; There’s an additional goal of comedy, to make audience laugh, but it shouldn’t defy rules of good plot, characterization, narration, film language. Then again, comedies vary too, and not all of them have the goal of making us burst into a neighbour-waking laughter. “Vampire’s ball”, jewel of a horror comedy of Roman Polanski, caricatures gothic horror, but in the same time keeps the horror element and doesn’t allow us to laugh simply by scaring us at the same time. In scene where Professor, the vampire killer and his assistant climb over high rooftops of the mountain castle, we are freaked out by the height that divides them from unrealistically picturesque landscape, yet we are amused by the slapstick with which they clumsily climb over. The result is a miffed, uncomfortable laughter. Similarly, with “Dr. Strangelove”, we will laugh because we are frustrated. That’s not the cathartic laughter of, for instance, whimsical “Airplane!”, it’s a scattered laugh with which we hide our frustration.
“Without a clue”, a Sherlock Holmes comedy by Thom Eberhart is, also, not particularly hilarious; There are a few big laughs in it, like the one related to replacement of the sword with the umbrella. But there are many funny moments, because the film lies on a clever, funny premise, and keeps us entertained with complications that come out of it; It gets most of it’s kick my clashing the old myth with something of a comedic value.
Namely, the premise is that Sherlock Holmes (played by Michael Caine here) is not a brilliant detective, but a dumb, lowlife loser. His reputation is built on the fact that Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real detective, hiding behind the mask of Holmes (who is, in fact, the actor that Dr. Watson hired) that attracts all unwanted attention, leaving Watson to ponder his cases in solemnity. This premise gives a lot of opportunity for comedic turns on the old Holmes fame: For instance, we see Holmes strolling around the scene of crime with his giant magnifying glass, detectives curiously following him, while Watson, uninterrupted, investigates in the other room. We keep imagining twists of truth that Watson uses to present Holmes as a great detective in his published journal.
The story revolves around the attempt of Dr. Watson to establish himself as a detective, unsatisfied with Holmes’ drunkenness and freewheeling. But neither his publishers nor clients aren’t interested in “Crime doctor” as he calls himself, so he has to drag Holmes back to solve one more case. The one involving Dr. Moriarty, of course.
Then DR. Watson is seemingly killed which gives us a chance to laugh at Holmes’ attempts to use deduction that he’s seen Watson using so many times. All he comes up with is that Moriarty’s real name might or might not be “Arty Morty”. Then there’s a showdown, a sword-fighting scene, a fire, and, of course, the return of Dr. Watson (which is not much of a spoiler since we can guess that he wasn’t dead all along.
Being that the film doesn’t intend to get us off our seats to the floor, instead of comedians, it casts British actors known for dead-serious roles, letting Kingsley’s grinning dignity clash with Caine’s clumsiness. Lysette Anthony, as the daughter of kidnapped money printer, has the Victorian beauty that lets us imagine her in some of James Ivory’s takes on Henry James or some other 19th century writer.
And there’s no more to say. It’s funny, it’s clever, unexpected, intriguing, characters are in place and it all works like greased wheels. Perhaps not all opportunities of the premise are used, but then again, who could think of it all?