Too earnest to be a parody and lacking the point of view to be revisionism or even homage, “Marlowe” merely cosplays a 1930s detective movie, taking us from two-fisted private dick to icy rich client to corruption among the powerful as though we hadn’t seen all of this countless times before.
With the slightest flick of the wrist, director Neil Jordan and screenwriter William Monahan – adapting an “approved by the estate of Raymond Chandler” novel from 2014 – could have turned this movie into a prolonged “Carol Burnett Show” sketch or, in the other direction, a haunting contemplation of societal rot in 1939 Los Angeles.
Instead, it’s a parade of curvy sedans, snappy fedoras, cigarette lighters and dialogue that only a cast this talented could deliver with a straight face.
Liam Neeson stars as ex-cop turned gumshoe Philip Marlowe, and while the casting seems absolutely appropriate on paper, the legendary screen presence never finds any singular elements within this iconic character to call his own. Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Robert Mitchum and even Elliott Gould have, over the course of cinema history, carved out their own particular niche with their own particular Marlowes, but Neeson mainly provides a bruised sort of gallantry when he’s not merely acting as an audience surrogate.
Marlowe’s case this time out? Wealthy Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) asks the detective to track down her missing lover Nico Peterson. Marlowe discovers quickly enough that Peterson was declared dead after a hit-and-run in front of the exclusive Corbata Club, but then Clare tells him that she recently spotted Nico, alive, in Tijuana.
Finding out whether Nico is alive or dead, and why the circumstances surrounding his alleged death are so murky, brings Marlowe in contact with an array of Angelenos, including Clare’s movie-star mom (Jessica Lange), an effete drug dealer (Alan Cumming), the dealer’s chauffeur (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “His Dark Materials”) and the sinister manager of the Corbata Club (Danny Huston, whose presence here is a constant reminder of his father’s contributions to “Chinatown,” a far superior take on L.A. detective movies).
The one clever running gag “Marlowe” has to offer is that so many Southern Californians are played by Irish, Scottish or British actors (in addition to Neeson and Cumming, Ian Hart and Colm Meaney pop up as a couple of local cops), while the film’s one Irish character is played by Jessica Lange. The movie has production value for days, from the smoky jazz of David Holmes’ score to the warm tones (and occasional lurid neon) of Xavi Giménez’s cinematography to the period-appropriate costume, hair and interior design, but the storytelling is shockingly perfunctory, hitting every expected P.I. plot point as through “The Maltese Falcon” were the Passion Play.
Jordan, it’s worth noting, redefined the modern film noir with 1986’s “Mona Lisa,” but here he doesn’t seem to have much to say about either 1939 or 2023. This is history as masquerade ball or fashion-magazine layout, and it’s a surprising disappointment from a storyteller whose period pieces (“The End of the Affair,” “Michael Collins”) generally offer a contemporary crackle.
There are few surprises or misdirects or red herrings involved with this all-too-solvable mystery, let alone subtext or commentary. With “Marlowe,” a very talented cast of actors and a legendary filmmaker have assembled to make a Philip Marlowe movie you can fold laundry to.
“Marlowe” opens in US theaters Feb. 15 via Briarcliff Entertainment/Open Road.