Movie Review: An astronomer’s death seems to come “Out of Blue” to the cops

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There’s implicit pleasure in watching Patricia Clarkson in any guise, so throwing her at an aged alcoholic gay New Orleans police detective is reason enough to check out the new thriller “Out of Blue.”

The intensely atmospheric film, based on a Martin Amis novel (“Night Train”) with a British director of indifferently received credits (Carol Morley did “Edge” and “The Falling”), is a bit a meander — somewhat all over the place. But a top drawer cast, the setting and the way cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (“Grosse Point Blank”) films it give this whodunit just enough moody wit to come off.

An assistant professor of astronomy (Mamie Gummer, still “Meryl’s kid”) impresses her students with her passion for black holes and poetic questions about knowing “your place in the universe” and “We are all stardust” observations.

Then she turns up dead, a bloody corpse at the base of the telescope in the observatory where she’d just given an evening lecture.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson) is on the case. She doesn’t just have a man’s name. She’s the last person who should be cracking wise about a colleague being stuck in the (fashion) past.

“You’re one to talk, Joan Jett,” comes too easily. Even the dotty, scattered but loving mother of the victim interrupts her grief to offer a little Southerly advice — “Ever dress like a woman?”

Mike sizes up the crime scene, and the camera tracks the details she spies — bloodspatter, a soiled sock, a bright red vintage shoe, a jar of face cream popular generations ago, with the lid missing. Jennifer, the victim, was a vintage clothing and collectibles fanatic, with the WWII era torch song “I’ll Be Seeing You” on the cassette in her late model T-bird.

Mike’s got suspects, more than a couple. There’s the fellow astronomer (Toby Jones) with the swollen jaw. Abscess, as he says? Or was he slugged in a struggle?

The boyfriend (Jonathan Majors) is another science professor, and is guileless enough to agree to an interrogation without a lawyer. Duncan figures out pretty quickly that being black trumps being a scientist, and he shouldn’t fall for her  “Help me figure out who did this.”

He remains a suspect for a lot of reasons, chief among them how he reacted to being told astronomer Jennifer was dead.

“Why?”

There’s also the gutted-by-grief wealthy Vietnam War vet father (James Caan) who walks with a cane and knows his way around firearms. Will his wife, the aforementioned ditz derailed by grief (Jacki Weaver) provide clues?

Mike is pursued by an ambitious young TV reporter (Devyn A. Tyler), even into her AA meeting. Turns out they have something in common. Maybe a couple of somethings.

Morley leans heavily on the science that Amis sprinkled throughout the book — discussions of how star collapses provided the building blocks of life, Schrodinger’s Cat and scientific “types” (people more interested in theoretical obsessions than the real world they’re stuck in).

There are many scenes where Clarkson’s Mike ponders the case, which seems just enough like “the .38 caliber killer” case of decades before to be worth mentioning. She considers falling off the wagon, and may already have as she hallucinates Jennifer’s life and obsesses over her music and “vintage” lifestyle.

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The plot is more cluttered than clear, almost playing fair with what the audience knows and what Mike should be able to reason out, but never quite. The

And there’s an odd omission of authentic New Orleans accents (just a couple) among all the folks that Mike deals with. As she’s supposedly a native, as is Patricia Clarkson herself, it’s odd that the drawling star of TV’s “Sharp Objects” doesn’t give us a hint of Mike’s bayou background.

“Out of Blue” seems a tad too much like its missing-word title — as if something important’s been left out of this adaptation. But the actors are a stellar crew (Jones, Tyler, Weaver and Reynolds stand out). And the reliably understated Clarkson gives us a taste of Det. Mike’s broken past, magical realist inner life and “process.”

That’s enough to make us want to ride along with this New Orleans cop, and help her fill in the blanks.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, strip club nudity, adult themes

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Mamie Gummer, Jonathan Majors, Toby Jones, Yolanda Ross, Devyn A. Tyler, Brit Collins, Jacki Weaver and James Caan

Credits: Written and directed by Carol Morley, based on a Martin Amis nove. An IFC/BBC Films release.

Running time: 1:49

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