It was only a matter of time before Canadian television superstar (if such a title actually still exists in the internet age) and stand-up comedian Brent Butt would try to make his leap to the big screen. The Corner Gas and Hiccups creator very firmly stays within the wheelhouse that made him a household name, starring in, producing, and writing his own star vehicle No Clue, the tale of a everyman in over his head pretending to be something he’s not. While it’s somewhat successful as a classical mystery, there’s still a feeling that in terms of his comedy, Butt might still be acting a bit too small minded for his own good.
Butt plays Leo Falloon, a purveyor of useless knickknacks, T-Shirts, key fobs, and various other ephemera for corporations to place their logos and branding on. His Vancouver office sits next to that an out of town private eye, and one day while hanging around the man’s office, he’s approached by potential femme fatale (Amy Smart) who’s looking for her missing brother, a video game developer who has disappeared just after becoming a partner in a new, potentially game changing design firm and just before the announcement and launch of the firm’s first big, new title. Knowing nothing about the art of detection, the video game industry, or how to deal with high pressure and potentially life threatening situations, Leo’s desire to be someone he isn’t gets him into a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.
Butt clearly spent quite a long time hashing out the details of the story itself, as the actual mystery at the heart of No Clue is a pretty good one. The twists make sense even though it’s basically a corporate espionage thriller, one of the least cinematic thrillers that could possibly be made, making it one rife with comedic possibility. Having a character like Faloon fits into this world quite nicely because he would be just as clueless as to what’s going on as most of the audience and probably a great deal of actual detectives would be, anyway. There aren’t a lot of red herrings in this whodunit, but certainly a lot of shifting allegiances. It’s easy to piece together who did what and why at around the halfway mark, but piecing together just how it all came together and if the brother is still alive remains the focal point throughout.
Canadian indie director Carl Bessai (Mothers & Daughters, Sisters & Brothers) keeps things snappy, fast paced, and lighthearted, but there’s a decided lack of grittiness that makes even comedic gumshoe flicks exciting to watch. It looks great and makes fine use of Vancouver locations that seems like they’re straight out of the 1940s (a great contrast for the film’s modernist plot hook), but there’s a drabness to the storytelling that starts slowly dragging the film down around it, almost like there’s a feeling that if he just turns the camera on Butt that things will work out in the end without much effort.
But Butt can’t really save his own film because the comedy on display is nothing that we haven’t seen from him before. Perhaps just slightly more manic than he usually is, Leo seems to have stepped out of the same kind of nervous motormouthed comedy that Butt has already done before on stage and on TV. It’s not a bad performance, but rather an indiscernible one. It feels like a stand-up simply placing his act into a film and not like the creation of a new character. For someone like Butt, who might need to find a new way to stay relevant if he wants the success outside of Canada that he’s seriously going for here, he has to take some risks. Doing a classically mounted mystery is a risk, but playing the same character he’s played several times before and one that’s ostensibly already an extension of his real life personality doesn’t do him any favours. We haven’t seen No Clue before per say, but we have seen exactly what the people making it are trying to do with it. It feels tiresome and safe instead of novel and fresh, which might be part of the point but it does few favours for a star that’s clearly striving to do something different.
But behind all of that calculation to not deviate too far from Butt’s comfort zone, he still has a few chances to show Leo as being more than an easily derided fool and there are a few chuckles along the way to be had. He has great chemistry with Smart, whom he has to act chronically awkward around, and a really great David Koechner, who plays Leo’s far more realistic thinking best friend. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t seem to want to go the extra mile. Instead of feeling like a great pulpy detective novel or a big screen comedy, it feels like another pitch for a potential TV show. If that was what Butt was going for, perhaps this one should have stayed on TV.