A Slight Case of Murder (review)

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Murder Most Fun

Those of us who are real died-in-the-wool movie fans know that movies aren’t just fun — they’re a philosophy. (Book lovers feel the same way.) Our favorite movies are always with us, a reservoir from which to draw running commentary on life, the universe, and everything. If you’ve ever said “There’s not a lot of money in revenge” or “There were rats, Dad, big ones” or “I’m depraved on accounta I’m deprived” — and said it when it was actually apropos of your personal situation — you know exactly what I mean.

Terry Thorpe would identify. A movie reviewer for a cable channel in New York City, Terry (William H. Macy: Mystery Men, Pleasantville) finds his film knowledge put to good use in his personal situation in the TNT Original movie A Slight Case of Murder. Good-naturedly ironic and delightfully self-referential, Case uses Terry to playfully toy with our expectations of a crime story by overtly acknowledging the conventions of the genre, and of movies on the whole, to keep us guessing — and amused — until the very end.
We know Terry didn’t commit murder right from the outset. No, his girlfriend (well, one of his girlfriends) simply slipped on a piece of ice and cracked her skull open on the corner of the coffee table in her apartment. But Terry was there, and he knows it won’t look good in the eyes of the police. So he runs.

Terry’s innocent, right? We know that. He should be able to clear himself and wind up okay at the end of the film, right? But immediately we get a hint that maybe things aren’t going to wind up as we might expect. Terry’s getaway car is a cab — the driver recognizes him as a critic and launches into his theory on movies, suggesting that once in a while, they should let “the broad die on the iceberg, the thief keep the jewels, a guy get away with murder.” Maybe Terry won’t get away with murder… But wait: He didn’t kill anyone. Can you not get away with not murdering someone?

A Slight Case of Murder — cowritten by Macy and director Steven Schachter, based on the novel A Travesty by Donald E. Westlake — is neo noir, so there’s a shady guy in a trenchcoat and fedora: Edgarson (James Cromwell: Babe: Pig in the City, Deep Impact), a private investigator. Edgarson was trailing Terry’s dead girlfriend (more nefariousness), and saw Terry rush from her apartment — he blackmails Terry, demanding $35,000 in exchange for some compromising photos. Underpaid writer that he is, Terry has to scramble — hilariously — for the cash. But having seen plenty of Hitchcock movies, Terry knows he can’t trust Edgarson, and plans a little reverse blackmail.

And then there are the cops to deal with. During a grilling from Detective Stapelli (Adam Arkin), Terry — in one of his many asides to the audience — regrets his often “vicious” reviews of actors now that he knows how hard acting can be. But he keeps his cool, and is seemingly befriended by Stapelli, a big movie fan himself — he is even invited over for dinner with Stapelli and his Betty Crocker-esque wife, Patricia (Julia Campbell). But Stapelli has an ulterior motive for the invitation, and Terry soon finds himself with even more reason to be paranoid of the cop.

Macy is fabulous here (as is the rest of the cast), making the audience co-conspirators with him in his crime… his noncrime… his less than legal doings, at any rate . He shares his befuddlement through takes to the camera that ask us “Can you believe this?” at each escalation of the insanity. Even when he’s involved in something less than savory, you can’t help but root for Terry — Macy is just low-key enough to make us almost unable to see him as dangerous, even when he is. If for nothing else, Case is worth seeing for Macy’s performance.

But there’s plenty to tickle movie buffs. Terry helps Stapelli on an unrelated case with a tip from Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes; he gives a lecture on the conventions of noir film that apply directly to his own problem; he interviews a movie director who inadvertently crushes Terry’s hopes that he’s gonna survive this.

A Slight Case of Murder is continually commenting on itself but never in a less than fun way. It’s a meta-movie: a movie about what we expect from a movie, and why we always want the unexpected.

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