Yet another of the myriad film-noir spoofs that proliferated during the ’70s, The Cheap Detective is surprisingly underwhelming given its all-star cast and brand-name writer. Neil Simon, opting for broad farce instead of his usual domestic dramedy, weaves together storylines and stylistic tropes from assorted ’40s detective movies, mostly those starring Humphrey Bogart. Peter Falk stars as Lou Peckinpaugh, a San Francisco private eye who gets embroiled in a plot that’s a little bit Casablanca, a little bit Maltese Falcon, and a little bit of everything else. His partner gets killed, villains search for a cache of super-sized diamonds, and Lou juggles romantic intrigue with several dizzy dames. The movie’s gags are so silly that characters have names like Betty DeBoop, Jasper Blubber, and Jezebel Dezire.
Based on this movie and Neil Simon’s other noir spoof from the same era starring Peter Falk, 1976’s Murder by Death, one gets the impression that Simon was trying to outdo Mel Brooks at the anything-goes approach to lampooning movie genres, but Simon simply couldn’t match the inspired lunacy that made Brooks’ spoofs so delirious. By trying to keep dialogue crisp and plotting rational, Simon’s attempt at this style falls somewhere between the extremes of proper storytelling and wild abandon. Thus, The Cheap Detective is fluffy without being truly irreverent and goofy without being truly insane—it’s like a second-rate Carol Burnett Show sketch, needlessly extended to feature length. What’s more, the movie is hurt by flat direction, as TV-trained helmer Robert Moore lacks the ability to generate exciting visuals.
Yet another problem is the all-over-the-map acting. The most enjoyable performances, by Falk and supporting players Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Madeline Kahn, and Fernando Lamas, wink at the audience without tipping into Borscht Belt excess. The most tiresome turns, by players including Ann-Margret, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, and Marsha Mason, fall into exactly that trap. (Though it must be said that Sid Caesar kills during one of the movie’s dumbest scenes, thanks to his legendary comic timing.) Some actors, however, seem completely adrift: Louise Fletcher, John Houseman, and Nicol Williamson strive to find consistent tonalities for their work, apparently receiving little guidance from Moore or the slapdash script. With this much talent involved, The Cheap Detective has a few bright spots, but the total package is quite blah.
The Cheap Detective: FUNKY