Sunday, December 05, 2004

Murder By Death

Okay, I'm thinking as this movie starts, we've got opening titles by Charles Addams, some pretty dead-on riffs on classic detectives by a spiffy cast, and a screenplay by Neil Simon. This is going to be fun. I settle in, and although I can't pin down the exact moment when the movie loses me, but I think I can guess why.

For the first half or so, this movie is all about the gag. Yes, the characters are very specific parodies of specific fictional detectives, but the jokes themselves are easily accessible to someone who didn't swallow Agatha Christie books whole as I did in junior high, which incidentally was followed by champoning Mystery! over Twin Peaks and Cheers in high school and becoming a fan of Humphrey Bogart and William Powell as an adult. Of course, for those of us that do fit that description, it's even funnier.

And the cast is pretty top-notch, and well-matched to their characters. David Niven could easily have stepped into William Powell's shoes for a few new Thin Man movies as "Dick Charleston". Peter Falk actually did another movie with the same writer/director as "Sam Diamond". Peter Sellers may not quite steal every scene he's in as Inspector Sidney Wang, but it's not for lack of trying (I swear that there was a "Sidney Wong" series, but can't find anything online; he's probably spoofing Charlie Chan). Elsa Lanchester is okay as "Miss Jessica Marbles" (though the Marple stories were never favorites of mine). James Coco certainly looks the part as "Milo Perrier", although the surprise here is James Cromwell as his assistant Marcel, a dead ringer for how Hugh Fraser would appear as Captain Hastings fifteen years later in LWT's Poirot series. Alec Guinness is fantastically funny as the blind butler, "Jamesir Bensonmum".

But look at those character names - they're straight out of "Mad" Magazine. And while "Mad" is great when you're ten, it can seem pretty trite to an adult. The movie winds up collapsing the same way a typical parody comic in that magazine does - under a crushing lump of self-referentiality, topped off by a snotty disdain for the subject matter that winds up pushing the fan away. I can laugh about the silliness of these characters' quirks, but parodists have got to respect that I love them, too. If all the filmmakers can bring is mockery, if they're not putting something fun back into my treasure chest of beloved film and literary bits to replace what they're casting aside, then the result is a mean-spirited, petty work.

And, by the end, that's what Murder By Death has become. The friendly jests of the opening half which brought genuine wit are replaced with arbitrary, cranky jabs at the mystery genre. This, one can't help but think, isn't nearly as much fun as it should be, or even nearly as much fun as it was an hour ago.

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