What's worse than a whodunit without a single plausible plot point? According to Judge Bill Gibron, it's this meandering murder mystery with far too many knotty narrative strands.
Homicide. Seduction. Betrayal. The classics never go out of style.
It has not been a good day for film critic Tyler Thorpe (William H. Macy, The Cooler). His uptown girlfriend, TV executive Laura Penny, has accidentally died, and he's convinced that the authorities will try to blame him for her death. Leaving the scene of the quasi-crime, Thorpe thinks he's safe. However, he is soon contacted by a private investigator named John Edgerson (James Cromwell, Babe) and, wouldn't you know it, he has some incriminating photos of Thorpe with Penny. For a payoff of $35K, the dick will keep his trap shut. Of course, Thorpe has to struggle to keep all this information from his other girlfriend, Esquire editor Kit Wannamaker (Felicity Huffman, Transamerica), and when the cops start snooping around, he really begins to feel the pressure. After another death, an affair with the homicide detective's wife, and a close call with an eyewitness to his other illegal act, Thorpe finds it almost impossible to stay out of trouble. If he's not careful, this Slight Case of Murder will turn into a substantial life sentence.
With a title that just begs for lampooning (A Slight Case of Entertainment, A Slight Case of Logic) and a plot that's one extremely stupid twist away from being completely credible, A Slight Case of Murder is a well-meaning but dull modern noir. Trading on William H. Macy's post-Fargo success, as well as TNT's desire to deliver quality made-for-TV movie fare, this 1999 effort is long on ambition and short on enjoyability. What starts out slow gets sloppy toward the middle, and once said notorious narrative turn occurs, we realize that this film is about to implode, avoiding the standard cinematic rules. It's no reflection on Macy's central character, the kind of naïve schnook who believes he can get away with almost anything. Nor is it the problem of the supporting cast, including Macy's real life wife Felicity Huffman, Adam Arkin, Julia Campbell, and the great James Cromwell as the standard double-crossing private dick. All the performers acquit themselves well with characters that are clearly drawn and spryly delivered. No, the biggest problem here is a second-act decision by our hampered antihero, a romantic reaction that's so stupid, so ill-timed and out of left field that it feels completely gratuitous. Since the story is taken from a book by genre great Donald E. Westlake—responsible for other crime classics like The Hot Rock, Cops and Robbers, and Bank Shot—we assume it was part of his mystery machinations all along. That still doesn't make the moment right.
Indeed, when Thorpe kisses Det. Stapelli's sheltered wife (leading to her clichéd recreation into a suburbanite horndog), everything halfway decent about A Slight Case of Murder melts into a pool of implausibility. Up until then, we've been with Macy's spineless coward, his decisions to hide the accidental death of his friend, his highly questionable ability to talk his way out of almost any situation (he's a WRITER, but that doesn't automatically make him a persuasive speaker, cable TV gig or no cable TV gig), and the cat-and-mouse bantering between Macy and Cromwell. Aside from some slightly sticky moments, like when Arkin's cop confesses that he invited Thorpe over to look at his script or when his bumbling bride delivers a horrifying white-trash chicken casserole dish to the dinner table, we are willing to go along for the rough ride. Then Macy puts the make on the policeman's woman and A Slight Case of Murder unravels. It is almost impossible for us to care for a man who is so stupid, so driven by his libido that he would threaten his growing alibi by bedding the spouse of the man who's helping him develop it. As a result, the purpose behind this genial genre exercise becomes moot. It no longer matters whether or not Thorpe gets away with it. If he does, it's not ingenuity or ruthlessness that wins out, but pure happenstance. If he doesn't, we've seen him purposefully fudge up his chances the moment he did the illicit lip lock.
As it stands, the last half of A Slight Case of Murder basically breezes by, mostly because there are a lot of loose ends to tie up and partly because we no longer are invested in the art of empathy. Whatever happens does (since the movie makes it very clear that this is the direction it is planning to take) and all the references to past murder mysteries and noted classic cinema, and the brazen breaking of the fourth wall (Macy's character occasionally talks directly to the audience like an outtake from the original whodunit version of Annie Hall) all act like ancillary time-wasters in a storyline that's proud of purposefully undermining our pleasure. As for the man behind the camera, director Steven Shachter has done better—both solo and in collaboration with Macy. Their Door to Door, about a salesman with cerebral palsy, was a wonderfully uplifting effort, and their weird remake of Jackie Gleason's French fable Gigot worked on its own gritty level. However, this nutty noir just stumbles too much to be effective. Thorpe is indeed a wicked weasel, a man almost incapable of caring for anyone but himself. Instead of finding a way to balance this out among the various plot points, Shachter just lets Macy meander around in Heelville for a while. For this and a few far more significant reasons, A Slight Case of Murder ends up being a major test of your patience, not your deductive reasoning. While the ending may not be a clearly telegraphed conclusion, it does play directly by the ridiculous rules this movie maneuvers within.
Presented by Warner Brothers in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is solid and free from defects, the visual elements of this movie are interesting, but offer little in the way of cinematic artistry. The colors are correct and the details are distinguishable, but that's about it. For a film that tries to ply the particulars of noir to fit its fluffy mystery, A Slight Case of Murder makes little use of the genre's visual formulas. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is professionally realized, with an overemphasis on smoky cool jazz that really looks odd within a modern Manhattan setting. Sadly, there is not a single extra added to this DVD—no commentaries, interviews, EPKs, or ads for other TNT productions. Such a bare-bones approach really limits the potential purchase power of such an unknown title.
While not the worst that made-for-TV moviemaking has to offer, A Slight Case of Murder definitely takes the adjective in its title literally. Like a cool wind blowing across your face on a hot summer's day, the diversion here may be welcome, but it doesn't last, and fails to linger long after the hackneyed heat is back on. Guilty of failing to live up to its potential.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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