Can it be possible: a Sherlock Holmes who’s quite literally “Without a Clue”? That’s the sturdy and amusing premise of this bubbling British comedy (citywide), which casts Holmes as the dolt, rather than his loyal friend Dr. Watson.
As writers Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther and director Thom Eberhardt would have it--with end title apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle--Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the creator of Sherlock Holmes, writing up his exploits in Strand magazine and hiring a third-rate actor, Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), to impersonate the ace detective.
Poor Watson! He’s created a Frankenstein’s Monster who looks the part of Holmes but is a near-idiot. Kincaid, a seedy charmer, is an unapologetic lech, gambler and drunk, capable of deducing only that he’s a got a good thing going. Watson is forever warding off Reggie’s tendency to stick his foot in his mouth at every possible occasion.
This means that “Holmes” wins the constant praises of the press and the police--with the exception of the skeptical and jealous Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones)--and has reduced the brilliant and meticulous Watson to a near-constant state of apoplexy.
Understandably, the fed-up Watson wants to kill off his creation and take his place himself, but as the publisher of Strand (Peter Cook) coolly points out, who cares about Dr. John Watson, Crime Doctor?
In time, of course, a case turns up that needs solving, the theft of the plates for the British 5 note, which brings the fake Holmes and the reluctant Watson to join forces.
“Without a Clue,” while not a thigh-slapper, is droll and imaginative enough to generate a steady stream of chuckles, punctuated by outright laughs. As is so often true of British films, this handsome production (designed by Brian Ackland-Snow) re-creates its late Victorian era with apparent ease and perfection.
Not surprisingly, Caine and Kingsley are a delightful duo, an 1890s “Odd Couple.” You just know that Caine’s Kincaid is eventually going to rise to the occasion, and it’s a joy to see Caine convey Reggie’s knowledge of how to deliver a line in the character of Holmes no matter how boozed up, distracted by the ladies or threatened by thugs over gambling debts.
Caine finds the gallantry in this maddening yet somehow irresistible man, who’s not unlike Peter O’Toole’s pickled ham in “My Favorite Year.” Kingsley, in turn, is the perfect foil whom we find very funny even when we can only sympathize with his chronic state of vexation. With its graceful Henry Mancini score, “Without a Clue” (rated PG) proceeds without a hitch.