Adam Brody has been a high point of two recent fun genre flicks. In Shazam! he was the grown-up superhero version of sidekick Freddie. And in Ready or Not he was the brother-in-law that gave Samara Weaving’s bride a chance at survival in a crazy mansion of killers. In his next movie, last year’s late pandemic year theatrical release The Kid Detective, the former Gilmore Girls and The O.C. actor plays Abe Applebaum, once a kid detective in the style of Encyclopedia Brown, he’s now a 32-year-old has-been, not cutting it as an adult detective. Unfortunately, what could have been something clever, fresh, and new, ends up pitifully bad–a film that can’t decide what it wants to be, a humorless experimental film that might have made a good effort as a film school project. It’s streaming now on Starz and other platforms.
The idea simply isn’t enough. The problem? First-time writer/director Evan Morgan took on too much. This is the kind of movie you call ambitious and it’s not a compliment. But credit Morgan for getting a lot right wearing the directing hat from a visual and sound standpoint. The core–the script–is thin and under-developed, despite sneaking in with a late-breaking ending that is salvageable bordering on good. At the most it’s a poor effort of showing what guilt and trauma do to kids who don’t have a chance to be kids (but is that what anyone wants from a noir movie?). The music and trailers hinted at something that could be like Pleasantville or Pottersville. A few of the scenes mimic a timeless Dennis the Menace backstory, but what we see isn’t delivered in a manner that nets more than a smirk or two. Better pieces show some components seen in The Nice Guys, which could mean Morgan is on the right track. He shows what he’s hoping for via Easter egg movie clips throughout the movie.
The production is a different story. It showed such potential: The small town setting works. Jay McCarrol’s soundtrack isn’t just a good noir soundtrack, it’s nuanced and the stuff of a great suspense thriller from the days of Noir’s past. Too bad the story was was missing the thrill part–until, after a long suffering slow meander, the whodunnit is revealed and the mysteries solved, which amounts to about 10 of its 100 minutes. It’s too little, too late.
The characters are what you want for a solid noir thriller. Brody continues to show promise as an actor, and it’s obvious his talent is stifled in this one-note character. Twenty-one-year-old actress Sophie Nélisse (The Book Thief) co-stars as the noir damsel in distress, the high school girlfriend of a boy found murdered and left in a river. She, too, shows promise, a bit of that wide-eyed, take-it-or-leave it appeal audiences first saw from a 21-year-old Cameron Diaz in her first role in The Mask. Sarah Sutherland (Veep, The Newsroom) plays Lucy, the obligatory detective office secretary, updated for the 21st century with black lipstick, a role that could have been expanded to flesh out a stronger film.
But none of the good bits remotely conquer the bad. The pacing is off. Obvious, basic story beats required of telling a story in any genre are missing. “Saving the cat” is a story concept for a reason, and almost to highlight all that is wrong here, the protagonist intentionally refuses to save the cat. Audiences won’t like your protagonist just because we’re supposed to. The writer needs to tell us why we should care, and the character needs to give us something to feel for.
Wendy Crewson (The Santa Clause, The 6th Day, Air Force One) and Jonathan Whittaker (Star Trek: Discovery, The X-Files, The Dresden Files) are stuck in bland roles as Abe’s parents. Tzi Ma (Wu Assassins, Mulan, Star Trek: The Next Generation) has barely a cameo as the murdered boy’s father. This felt like a waste of time for some quality actors.
What could have helped? Humor. Timing. A more vetted script. Not setting audiences up for disappointment by advertising the film as something that it isn’t.
A completely forgettable movie that will hopefully not slow down the trajectory of its actors’ careers, The Kid Detective is now streaming on Starz and other platforms.