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Movie Review: Board Game Adaptation CLUE Holds Up Well Against Classic 1980s Comedies

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Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of the popular Hasbro board game Clue deserves comparison with heralded ‘80s comedies like The Blues Brothers, Stripes, Caddyshack, and Trading Places (I know; I never thought a movie based on a cardboard box would merit serious critical discussion); they all share the same ironic tone, the same dry way around a punchline, the same flat visual style (one step more cinematic than an average episode of “The Big Bang Theory”), and the same encyclopedic grouping of comedy legends (between the five, you get Martin Mull, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Howard Hesseman, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, and Eddie Murphy, a collection that’s a Gilda Radner and a Martin Short shy of my dream vintage “Saturday Night Live” cast).

However, Clue takes more getting used to than the other three because its inspirations stem from more rarefied origins. Stripes, Caddyshack, Trading Places, movies of that ilk: they feel artless, like their respective directors hired a bunch of talented comedians and let them riff to their hearts’ content.  Now, more often than not, that isn’t true – the end result would be too meandering and unfocused (case in point: this past weekend’s stumbling, largely unfunny The Watch, which lets its very funny cast improvise roughshod over necessary screen conceits like timing and not being boring) – but it’s a fantasy we like to perpetuate, as if comedy is some delicate bird that can only fly if freed from the confines of its iron cage.

Clue, on the other hand, gets around its appallingly commercial corporate origins by hewing to a venerated mystery trope: the drawing room killer.  With the exception of the character names and the potential murder weapons at hand (“It’s Colonel Mustard, in the kitchen, with the lead pipe,” and so on) writers Jonathan Lynn and John Landis virtually ignore the board game so they can spoof Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen – anything where a group of strangers find themselves locked in an old, dark house with a maniac, and they have to deduce who among them is the killer before it’s too late.

This sort of parody had been done before – Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger adds postmodern wit to the genre standard, while Neil Simon’s Murder by Death dispenses seriousness in favor of absurdist japes – but what gives Clue its spark is Lynn and Landis’ infusing of farce.  For its last forty minutes, Clue races from room to room, slamming doors and one-liners like something out of La Cage Aux Folles, and it is this speed that turns horror into comedy; things that would normally mortify human beings (like, say, a dead body popping up every few minutes) don’t stick because of the nine hundred other complications piling up behind them.  That’s what makes Clue the outlier in the ‘80s comedy crew – every aspect of the humor feels rigorously structured.

How else to explain Michael Kaplan’s costume design, which tells you everything you need to know about the characters before they say a word (my favorite: the Hedda Hopper-esque pomp and frills of Eileen Brennan’s Miss Peacock); or Thomas L. Roysden set design, with its hidden passageways and swinging chandeliers and conveniently timed power outages; or – best of all – Tim Curry’s hyperkinetic butler Wadsworth, whose virtuoso, twenty-minute-long unraveling of the various intrigues has the pitch and timing of a great vaudeville routine?  In an era of slob and sex comedies, Clue hearkens back to Howard Hawks and Frank Tashlin and the Marx Brothers, and though it isn’t quite their equal, it isn’t for lack of trying.

What’s really wonderful about this His Girl Friday-meets-And Then There Were None romp is that the speed addresses the dirty little secret at the heart of the drawing room mystery: they never make much sense.  That’s why most of them end with one person explaining whodunit to other people (read: to us) – the explanation acts as a smokescreen for the logistical “huh’s” that never add up.

In Clue, Curry fires off so many revelations about who killed who and why and how the fusion bomb and McCarthyism factors into it all (Clue takes place in 1954) and how many bullets a gun does or doesn’t have that we can’t help but laugh, both at the sheer volume of his “explanations” and at how useless they all are (one of Clue‘s great running gags is the threat of Communism, which Curry speaks of with great gravity before debunking that theory as “just a red herring”).  In that light, the film’s three different endings make perfect sense; anybody could be the killer since the evidence is nonsensical enough to implicate everyone.

Clue isn’t perfect; its first twenty minutes do an artless job of setting up the cast, and it has a tendency to fall back on cheap gags whenever things have been quiet for more than thirty seconds (cutting to Colleen Camp’s massive cleavage, or making reference to the fact that Wadsworth tracked dog crap into the house).  It’s also unfortunate that Christopher Lloyd – arguably the most talented member of the cast – gets almost nothing funny to do in the entire film.

But even with those flaws, Clue barrels along on such anarchic, exquisitely rehearsed energy that we tend to forget its problems; we’re too busy trying to keep our hands and feet in the vehicle at all times.

Paramount’s Blu-ray looks fine; DP Victor Kemper’s cinematography was always fairly bland, and the HD transfer honors its limited palette.  The monaural DTS-HD Master Audio is much more immersive and layered.

Features are slim: the trailer, and a viewing mode that lets you choose between watching Clue with all three of its alternate endings attached or with just one selected at random.

Twenty-seven years later, Clue continues to entertain and amuse; it’s relic from a relic, a movie perpetually – and hilariously – unstuck in time.

The Blu-ray streets on August 7th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.