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Comic murder mystery ‘Knives Out’ is not a complete waste of time

How’s this for damning with faint praise? The new comic murder mystery “Knives Out” is Mildly Amusing. Or, Diverting Enough, I Suppose. Or, Not a Complete Waste of Time. Are those compliments back-handed enough to make it clear my reaction to writer/director Rian Johnson’s latest film is tepid at best?

It’s not like I have knives out for “Knives Out.” I’m a big fan of Johnson’s earlier work, especially “Brick,” and “Looper.” And I appreciate someone trying to resurrect a moribund genre like the Agatha-Christie-ish mystery in which all the murder suspects are confined to a single space while the private investigator does his methodical work.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to gently request that you all stay in town until the investigation is complete,” they’re told.

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Those being requested to stay in town are all conniving members of the extended Harlan Thornby family. Thornby, a famous and extremely wealthy murder mystery writer, dies the night of his 85th birthday party and although the cause of death is called suicide, enough doubts are swirling about that someone hires a private detective to investigate further. An all-star cast (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, among others) plays the morally flawed family members, each of whom has good reason for wanting their patriarch dead.

Thornby’s nurse Martais is also considered a suspect, despite the fact she seems the only one who doesn’t have a good motive for murder. Daniel Craig plays the very Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc whose job is to ferret out the truth.

“I’m here at the behest of a client, but let me assure you that my presence will be ornamental,” he says.

It’s tricky to review a whodunnit without tipping one’s hand, so I will not say another word about the plot. Let me just note that I do not find the ultimate resolution of this mystery particularly surprising or clever. Thus, I’m truly baffled by the many critics who are raving about the ingenuity of the script.

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There are some funny running jokes, like the fact that the snooty Thornbys keep misremembering the South American country Marta is from. And spot-on cracks about our social media-ized world keep coming:

“I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.” Smart and funny, like a caption from a New Yorker cartoon.

And the cast admittedly seems to be having a blast, with each member patiently waiting their turn to chew the scenery. But while it’s fun to watch others have fun, it’s not nearly as fun as having fun yourself. And I didn’t have enough fun to recommend “Knives Out.”

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