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Without a Clue
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by Jay Seaver

"Caine and Kingsley are Holmes and Watson - more or less."
4 stars

The end credits of "Without a Clue" offer Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the filmmakers' apologies. It's a nice gesture, but unnecessary for three reasons: First, the man is long dead and past caring. Second, he was notoriously dismissive of Holmes and what others did with the character (when actor/playwright William Gillette worried that Doyle might have an issue with his having Holmes married, he responded that Gillette could kill him for all he cared). Most importantly, they've made a fairly entertaining comedy.

The common lore on Sherlock Holmes is that Doyle based him upon one of his teachers, a Dr. Joseph Bell, and then made Watson in his own image. Of course, in order to write Holmes, Doyle would have to have some skill with his methods (which he would, it is said, demonstrate from time to time). It's also well-documented that he resented his most famous creation, going so far as to kill him off in "The Finale Problem". Die-hard fans of Holmes play "The Grand Game" of treating Doyle's stories as if they had actually happened already, and the premise of Without a Clue is an extension of that, mapping Doyle's contentious relationship with his creation onto Watson.

So, as the film starts, Holmes and Watson are foiling a burglary, but Holmes is actually actor Reggie Kincaid (Michael Caine); Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the brains of the operation. Watson created Holmes when he was applying for a position at a conservative medical school who might not approve of his exploits as "the crime doctor", but after years he has grown weary of Holmes receiving all the credit - and that's before considering his impatience with Kincaid, a drunkard and buffoon. He resolves to dispose of Holmes, but finds that even Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) will not take Watson alone seriously. So he brings Kincaid back for one last case - a man has disappeared with the plates used to print the five-pound note. Soon "Holmes" and Watson are protecting his beautiful daughter Leslie (Lysette Anthony), unaware that the true villain is Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman).

So, toss away the idea that director Thom Eberhardt and writers Gary Murphy & Larry Strawther are doing some kind of literary criticism - because that would really only be funny or clever to a bunch of fanatics - is what's left still good material? Yes. Even if you don't know Holmes and Watson from Poirot and Hastings, the premise of creating a front/alter ego that becomes more trouble than he is a good one. But, of course, everybody does know these characters, and one of the neat things about the premise is that it works no matter where you know them from: An audience mainly familiar with the "Watson as screw-up" arrangement popularized by the Rathbone/Bruce series of movies can see it as a straight role reversal; those who see Watson as an intelligent, self-deprecating narrator can see him getting his due.

Casting these characters is crucial, though, and Without a Clue wouldn't be half as entertaining as it is without leads as good as Caine and Kingsley. A sign of their success is that it's not immediately obvious which parts you'd cast them in if you were doing a straight adaptation with them; both convey bits normally associated with each character and make them funny besides. Caine, for instance, is an amiable fellow as Kincaid, though one whose company you would likely rapidly grow tired of, but despite all the slapstick he's given and jokes mocking his character's intelligence and acting career, he gives the character just enough of a brain that we can buy him as capable of his part in the con. Caine as Kincaid as Holmes summons enough personal charisma and self-confidence that we can see people believing in him. Kingsley's Watson, on the other hand, is fussy and impatient, but level-headed in his dealings with anybody other than Kincaid. Kingsley is hilariously, manically frustrated, funny in both how he does a slow (or, as often, quick) burn and how Watson isn't nearly as able to be as convincing as his true self as Kincaid is in a role. The two play off each other extremely well, selling us on a long and contentious relationship.

The rest of the cast is quite good, too. A good rule of thumb for comedies, even the hyphenated variety (action-comedies, adventure-comedies, etc.), is that even the supporting characters should be funny in some way. Paul Freeman isn't so much funny as entertaining in his theatricality as the villain, but he's only in a handful of scenes. Pat Keen and Matthew Savage are gold in nearly every scene they're in as landlady Mrs. Hudson and street urchin Wiggins, the two characters that Watson has taken into his confidence. Jeffrey Jones is perfect casting as the blustery (and dimmer-than-Kincaid) Lestrade. And even Lysette Anthony gets into the action toward the end after playing the ingenue.

In a lot of ways, "Without a Clue" is pretty silly - much of the filmmakers' experience before and after is in sitcoms, and the film goes for broad slapstick quite a bit. But even the goofiest comedy can work like a charm in the hands of people as good as Caine and Kingsley, and they make this one work better than could possibly be expected.

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originally posted: 12/18/09 16:00:00
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User Comments

3/10/10 Richard Brandt The ultimate actor finally becomes his role, but still gets it all wrong 3 stars
9/27/03 Marcia Lartz Interesting concept that never really takes off. 3 stars
9/02/02 y2mckay The premise? Holmes is a drunk womanizing idiot. Watson is the real genius. Hilarity ensues 4 stars
6/22/02 hum this is very silly but i adore it 4 stars
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  02-Oct-1988 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Mar-2004



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