Thursday, February 16, 2023

Marlowe

I'd be genuinely interested to hear what someone who doesn't have any particular prior attachment to Philip Marlowe thinks of this new film, based not on the original Raymond Chandler stories but one of the works by other writers that his estate licenses every few years, because this just felt off in so many ways to me but may, I suppose, play fairly well for the folks who are seeing it primarily as a Liam Neeson action/crime flick, or are far bigger Neil Jordan fans than I am. They are probably a bigger audience than Chandler fans, after all, and I gather this might not be a bad adaptation of a John Banville story, so it could just be Not For Me despite looking a lot like Just For Me.

Still, it kind of rubs me the wrong way. The ratio of "Marlowe punches someone out" to "Marlowe gets knocked unconscious" is way off. And I'm not usually one to complain about coarse language, but it comes off as pretty dull here when you know how Marlowe speaks when Chandler writes him.

Ah, well. I've got at least two good Marlowe movies on one set of shelves and all the books, and it's not like the Jason O'Mara TV series or Clive Owen movies are ever going to happen, so this is pretty harmless.

Marlowe '23

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Marlowe isn't based on a Raymond Chandler novel, but rather a licensed work by John Banville (writing under a pseudonym), and there are times when Chandler doesn't even feel like a primary influence to this film. Neil Jordan and company know the basics, and certainly know the trappings of the genre well enough to deliver something serviceable, but either don't get the vibe of the character enough to capture him or are trying to subvert expectations without ever really seeing them up to knock down.

It opens, as these things do, with a beautiful woman looking to hire Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson), a Los Angeles private eye but not telling him everything at first. Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) wants him to find her lover, Nico Peterson (Fran├žois Arnaud), but doesn't tell him that (a) Nico was found dead when a car ran over him a couple weeks before and (b) she claims to have seen him afterward. Annoyed but undeterred, Marlowe keeps on it, knowing he must be onto something when numerous people - Clare's mother Dorothy (Jessica Lange) and gangster Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming) among them - alternately try to bump him off or hire him away from Clare, so that they'll have first crack at Nico.

It's got the shape of a classic detective story, with a crooked path for Marlowe to follow, clues that dead end in what is often quite literal fashion, and some seaminess lurking just in the shadows. It's populated with stock characters, some more entertaining than others; Alan Cumming, for instance, couldn't be boring if that was the job. Neil Jordan and co-writer William Monahan tend to emphasize the wrong details, mechanism over personality. It's telling, I think, that where Chandler's books and the movies most directly adapted from them are full of clever turns of phrase that reveal Marlowe as having a sharp, self-deprecating wit, this film more often has him and those he'd verbally spar with quoting other people, expecting points for recognition but not creation.

It's also generally bland in other ways - for a movie that winds up centered on an illicit brothel and has characters described as being seductive, the film is so unsexy that it's hard to believe this is the same character Bogart played in The Big Sleep. It's got tons of Art Deco design but no shadows in which to hide things, and Jordan seldom gives the moments when things escalate from quiet to violent a moment to let the audience feel some shock. Everyone has nice period costumes and Spain stands in for sunny California well enough, although it all looks a bit too brand-new considering Marlowe is supposed to be a bit low-rent. There are moments when the Irish-ness of the film shines through to the point where one wonders if Marlowe's "bad war" was not World War I but the Irish War of Independence, but not so much that the Irish influence on this part of America at this point in time serves as a hook

Liam Neeson could have been a fine Marlowe, but he never gives any indication of why Marlowe tends to get drawn into foolish quests here, more cynical than world-weary on top of barely getting any chewy Chandler-style dialogue or narration to work with. Everybody seems too aware that the actor is too old to pair with Diane Kruger, heading that off immediately with acknowledgment of the age gap but never giving either of them something else to work with (as with the Irish-ness, there's an interesting idea to having an aging Marlowe drawn more to Jessica Lange's domineering mother than the daughter, but the filmmakers don't quite go for it). Marlowe disappears inside Neeson, rather than vice versa.

Darn shame. This has the talent involved to sit alongside the two or three great Marlowe movies, but plays like just another Open Road Neeson entry rather than an interesting take on one of the detective story's best characters.

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