Movies with sprawling, starry casts nearly always seem like a treat for the actors in them; a sort of celebrity summer camp, with paychecks. That giddiness doesn’t necessarily translate, though, to the common people on the other side of the screen. God bless director Rian Johnson then for bringing so much equal-opportunity fun to Knives Out, a silly, stabby, supremely clever whodunnit that only really suffers from having too little room for each of its talented players to fully register in the film’s limited run time.
Those actors include (deep breath): Christopher Plummer as wildly successful murder-mystery writer and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey, whose untimely demise on the night of his 85th birthday party triggers everything that follows; his tightly-wound eldest daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Richard (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), and their wayward offspring, Ransom (Chris Evans); brooding middle son Walt (Michael Shannon), who helps run the family publishing business; dippy lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette) and her vaping co-ed daughter, Meg (13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford); Harlan’s faithful nurse-companion Marta (Ana de Armas).
There’s also Sorry to Bother You’s Lakeith Stanfield as a low-key police detective, and Daniel Craig as the fancy private P.I. brought in under special, anonymous circumstances to audit the investigation. He sounds like Foghorn Leghorn on Quaaludes when he talks, but he sees things others don’t. And he quickly zeroes in Marta as his key to the case, in part because she cannot tell a lie — literally: Untruths make her projectile vomit.
The script, also by Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the upcoming Untitled Star Wars Trilogy: Episode I) lovingly teases the tropes of classic murder mysteries, while simultaneously blowing the dust off them with timely jokes about Game of Thrones, Hamilton, and dark-web incels.
Inevitably, some cast members rise to the top: Colette’s fluttering, moon-juiced Jodi deserves her own Goop-sponsored sequel, or at least a half-hour pilot on Bravo. Evans is perfectly smarmy as the swaggering trust-fund kid who floats above it all, and Craig honestly seems to be having more fun with his Colonel Sanders gentleman than he has in the last four Bond films combined.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that lot actually hinges on the lovely, wide-eyed de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), who maintains a sweetly implacable presence, even as the script gleefully digs into a running gag about her family origins (she’s from Uruguay! No, Paraguay! Guatemala! Brazil?) at the oblivious Thrombeys’ expense.
The exact who of the dunnit, when it finally comes, is unabashedly corny but satisfying, too; a callback to all the classic wrap-ups of the genre, with a pitch-perfect, thoroughly modern final shot on par with that of one of the other great black comedies of this year, Ready or Not. But to reveal any more than that, of course, would be a crime. B+
(Knives Out premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in theaters Nov. 27)