February 17, 2023
Marlowe is as cheap and dull as its title would suggest. Its titular character, created by Raymond Chandler in the 1920s at the height of the hardboiled detective literary craze, established many of the tropes found within the noir genre, such as seductively dangerous blondes, double entendre dialogue, and the thin line between what's is and isn't within the bounds of the law. The likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum have stepped into the role, further planting this character in a different time and place than what modern audiences are used to.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as a major sign as to what demographic this movie is aimed for, a 70-year-old Liam Neeson (in his 100th screen credit, many of which have come in this tiredly ongoing post-Taken phase of his career) stars as Marlowe. Never mind that the character is canonically in his mid-30s in almost all of his stories, including The Black-Eyed Blonde, which serves as the source material here. Neeson's Marlowe is too old for this shit, a line that is muttered almost verbatim a few times in a sort of winking fashion to the audience. It's not as unintentionally hilarious as when Marlowe's young employer proposes a little fooling around, which he declines by staring almost directly into the camera and saying, "I can't do that because you're half my age and we have a professional relationship."
It's tiringly groan-worthy moments like these that make Neil Jordan's adaptation feel lost in time, as it has one foot planted in the creaky old charms of the past and the other in the present sensibilities. It might be why Jordan, speaking at the film's quiet world premiere at the San Sebastián Film Festival back in October, says his film is more of a science-fiction flick than anything else. But this is no Blade Runner, with Marlowe on a case of a missing man everyone claims to be dead, except for his lover, the beautiful Claire Cavendish, who reports having seen him walking about just a few days ago.
As he digs for clues, Marlowe comes across a cavalcade of nefarious characters that want nothing less than to have someone poking around their business. Jessica Lange, clearly having the most fun in her thankless role, plays Claire's mother, a once-famous actress that may also be connected to this case. Danny Huston is the manager of the elite club where the missing person was supposedly killed, a detail that he is reluctant to share. And Alan Cumming is reaching far too down in the well of camp in his role of a sleazy nightclub owner, complete with a phony southern accent and even phonier tirades.
Xavi Giménez's claustrophobic framing does as much as possible to hide the fact that Spain doubles for 1930s Los Angeles. Jordan employs some long takes to add a bit of professionalism, but the cheap sets and costumes make everything feel closer to an SNL parody than a true dive into the genre. There's also a clear lack of pacing by Jordan and co-writer William Monahan (The Departed), with events progressing in such a lethargic manner that any excitement has to be fully supplied by the audience, who don’t have a good chance at fighting their increasingly heavy eyelids.
It's a great shame, but it seems that Neil Jordan is the newest member of the group of once-respected directors that just don't have "it" anymore. Fellow Irishman Jim Sheridan, Wim Wenders, and somewhat Werner Herzog have been steady patrons of the club, where the promise is still semi-there on paper, but the continually shoddy execution results in crushing disappointment.