Good news for connoisseurs of 1970s cinema: Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” has arrived. Quentin Tarantino may have cornered the market on the decade’s more disreputable fare, but Johnson takes inspiration from a less fashionable genre: the glossy, hokey, Hollywood whodunit. Surprisingly, “Knives Out” isn’t a spoof but an almost straight-faced homage, with the requisite twisty-turny plot and star-studded cast. It’s even timed for a pre-Thanksgiving release, just as “Murder on the Orient Express” was in 1974.
That and numerous other Agatha Christie adaptations, along with semi-forgotten gems like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” echo throughout Johnson’s winking but never mocking pastiche. It starts with the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery novelist — very meta — who leaves behind a vast fortune. Expectant family members gather at his mansion, only to find themselves grilled by two lawmen (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a colorful private eye named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
Cue our introduction to the main characters, using slow zoom-ins to catch the lies in their eyes. To name just the most entertaining few, they are Toni Collette as Joni, a pampered New Ager; Michael Shannon as Walt, who runs dad’s publishing business; and Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, a gimlet-eyed observer who nevertheless married an obvious cad, Richard (an excellent Don Johnson). Chris Evans plays the absurdly named Ransom, a playboy with refreshingly open hostility for his relatives, while Ana de Armas plays Marta, the late writer’s beloved housekeeper. In one of the movie’s sillier conceits, Marta is so good-hearted that lying makes her literally vomit.
Having the most fun are Craig and Evans, both eager to shed their ID’s as James Bond and Captain America, respectively. Craig really goes all-out, adopting a Deep South drawl and spouting swampy profundities about truth and human nature. He even gets a Joe-Pesci-in-”JFK” moment when he compares the Thrombey case to a donut inside another donut.
For offbeat dialogue and clever camerawork, writer-director Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) still hasn’t bested his little-seen gem “The Brothers Bloom” (2008). At heart, “Knives Out” is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. Aside from a few moments of Trump-era politics and the appearance of a vape-pen, the movie is essentially timeless — a smart and classy piece of holiday-season entertainment.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon
Rated PG-13 (bloody images and mild violence)
Running time: 2:11