WITHOUT A CLUE. Directed by Thom Eberhardt; written by Cary Murphy and Larry Strawther; produced by Marc Stirdivant for Orion. Starring Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine. Rated PG.
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How does one spoof a venerable tradition and maintain respect for it at the same time?
It helps if the players of your spoof are accomplished actors with a broad range of talent. But even so, it's a difficult task that Without a Clue pulls off almost flawlessly.
The basic idea of the story is the wildest since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Suppose that Sherlock Holmes wasn't really a super sleuth at all. Suppose that Dr. Watson (Kingsley) was the real brains of 221B Baker Street, but he didn't have enough charisma to get himself taken seriously.
So he hires a bombastic actor, Reginald Kincaid (Caine), to "play" Holmes and relay his (Watson's) deductions to the general public and Scotland Yard.
It may sound too crazy and convoluted to work, but with Caine and Kingsley cavorting around an impressively-designed Victorian London, it plays much better than it sounds.
In spite of the heretical notion that their hero was really a dull-witted drunkard, Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy Without a Clue more than anyone. However, there's enough well-played general funny business that even viewers who have never read a Conan Doyle story will still be entertained.
Kingsley doesn't look much like Gandhi here, but he's a great Watson. Losing patience with his hireling's airs and blunders, calmly taking on criminal mastermind Moriarity (Paul Freeman), he's terrific from start to finish. Caine's playing a more similar character to ones we've seen him do before, but he's a joy to watch as well.
Potent as the co-starring duo is, though, they almost lose some scenes to Pat Keen as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, and to Jeffrey Jones, who was probably born to play Inspector Lestrade.
With such an outrageous story, a few logically strained situations are inevitable. Like, with "Holmes" spending so much of his spare time drinking, gambling and womanizing, how can he keep his reputation as the ever-discreet, cool-headed master of deduction?
Such seams in the piecework don't show too often, though. And even when they do, Without a Clue is so much fun that it's easy to overlook them.
November 30, 1988