Neil Jordan’s latest has an excellent cast, but the mystery at the center of this Raymond Chandler-based story isn’t up to snuff.
Set in 1930s Hollywood, Marlowe pays little homage to that era and noir cinema. The title character is a private investigator who is recruited by Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), an heiress who’s in search of her ex-lover Nico (François Arnaud). The only trouble is, he’s presumed dead and witnesses saw him die, but she says he’s alive and well somewhere. It’s up to Marlowe to get to the bottom of this story and find out what truth is there in all versions of the story.
One of the best elements is Marlowe is that it fully understands the nostalgia that it’s evoking. At the same time, director Neil Jordan never lets this nostalgia take over: You get a glimpse of an old movie being filmed, but it’s never romanticized, and life in 1930s Los Angeles is depicted as pretty normal, even though it’s from the elite’s standpoint. The result is that you genuinely feel like you’re watching a Golden Era movie, which certainly works and looks a lot better on the big screen. And then there are the recurring themes of an investigative plot (Did Nico manage to fake his own death? Does Clare have ulterior motives?) which are always fun to watch and try to figure out.
One thing that may keep audiences at bay, though, is Marlowe’s involvement with the case. The detective is not really personally connected nor obsessed with it, which at times makes us feel the same general lack of connection. The case is intriguing and indeed makes us curious, but at the same time, it’s not the edge-of-your-seat mystery that makes you feel like you just have to know the answer to the riddle at all costs. And sometimes, that may keep the audience from connecting with the characters directly or indirectly involved in the mystery.
On the other hand, Marlowe has the luxury of managing to draw the audience in through its cast alone. Kruger, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are always fun to watch, but there’s one particular pairing that greatly elevates the experience. Whenever you see Neeson and Jessica Lange interacting, you pretty much get the feel of being in the presence of Hollywood royalty doing their very best in every take, all the while making it seem effortless.
In one particular scene, Neeson and Lange are in a restaurant, and you get the feeling that the whole movie could just be these two talented actors talking to each other for two hours, and you’d absolutely buy it. Just seeing Lange interact with the environment around her and Neeson’s Marlowe trying to see through Lang’s character Dorothy provides all the fun you’d need during a screening, and the only problem is that we don’t get a lot of interactions between the two throughout the movie.
William Monahan’s (The Departed) script makes a point of showcasing Neeson’s particular set of skills, and sometimes Marlowe gets into fights just so we won’t forget that the Academy Award nominee can kick ass. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t make as much of an effort to showcase Marlowe’s wits, limiting the character’s most brilliant moments to scenes like him playing chess against himself and a maneuver with a dangerous drink you’d be hard-pressed to believe no one noticed his lack of sleight of hand (you’ll know it when you see it).
Marlowe is a movie that seems okay with not giving its title character a whopping first impression. Luckily, Neeson’s performance is compelling enough to keep you interested, even though as the case unfolds you realize that it’s going in a pretty obvious direction. That’s why the movie greatly benefits from its cast, whose undisputable talent fire up the screen and make you feel like the trip to Golden Age Hollywood — which was beautifully recreated with a grade-A production and costume design — was worth your time.
Marlowe is playing in theaters now.