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MMYIF: Without a Clue

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Without a Clue
Directed by: Thom Eberhardt
Starring: Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Jeffrey Jones
Released: October 21, 1988

A drunken Sherlock Holmes is really just a cover for the real detective, Dr. Watson.

What I Thought Then

This was my first introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes and for many years after the Holmes/Watson dynamic in this film was my default way of thinking about the characters. Which is just shockingly wrong.

What I Think Now

Dr. John Watson is a genius who, several years back, solved a mystery for the police but didn't want to reveal that he was the one who solved it, as he was hoping to receive an appointment to a fairly conservative medical college where they would probably frown on him solving mysteries in his spare time. So he invented a character named Sherlock Holmes, attributed the solution to him, and suddenly everyone wanted to meet this man. Watson hired an alcoholic third-rate actor named Reginald Kinkade to play the part and began publishing accounts of their adventures to pay the bills. This had gone well enough, but now the pair are sick of each other and trying, unsuccessfully, to go their separate ways when a particularly important case lands in their laps--the theft of the printing plates used to make five pound notes. Hijinks ensue.

The premise of this movie is fairly dumb, and I swear it only works because it stars two of Britain's most titanic actors who are apparently having the time of their lives. The first half is pure farce. Michael Caine plays Holmes/Kinkade as a charismatic buffoon. Kinkade is an idiot, yes, but he's also a skilled--if undisciplined--actor who slips into the role of Sherlock Holmes effortlessly between bouts of accidentally blowing himself up and getting into drunken rows. Ben Kingsley plays Watson as a tired parent, a man who's decided late in life to try to reinvent himself only to grudgingly realize that he's saddled with this moronic man-child. Is there a moment where Watson tells the police something vital only to be brushed off, but then when Holmes says the exact same thing, they take it seriously? Of course there is. Do they have a comically adversarial relationship with Jeffrey Jones as Inspector Lestrade? Of course they do. (Oh, hey, Jeffrey Jones is in this! Save Ferris!) Will Holmes' and Watson's friendship ultimately be rekindled? Watch and find out!

In the second half, things take a more serious turn as the movie raises the stakes and focuses more on the mystery and the behind-the-scenes machinations of a certain arch-nemesis. I won't spoil it, but Holmes surmises that his real name might be "Arty Morty". The movie gets genuinely exciting and builds towards a climax that balances silliness and adventure. Holmes and Watson each get moments to shine and transcend their personal shortcomings.

It's aged mostly well. It's staged like a period drama with minimal special effects outside of makeup and set dressing (and the odd explosion--Holmes does blow himself up, after all). The acting is superb. Both Caine and Kingsley have brilliant comic timing and a fantastic rapport. Caine's so good, in fact, I would have liked to see more slapstick in his career. The only thing that's aged poorly a is scene towards the end where a trans character is mined for laughs. It feels a bit tacky by modern standards, although it's not egregiously mean.


Yes, especially if you like British comedy, unless you have a particular aversion to transphobic humor. Or Jeffrey Jones.

Tune in next week for a series of penis jokes disguised as a police movie...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.