February 15, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Neil Jordan
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, in 1939, the dramatic film “Marlowe” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Jaded private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a wealthy married socialite to investigate the disappearance of her younger lover, who was declared dead, but she says that he’s still alive.
Culture Audience: “Marlowe” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the Philip Marlowe detective books, star Liam Neeson and movies that are watered-down and less-interesting versions of the books.
“Marlowe” is going for a classic film noir vibe, but the results are flat and listless. The movie’s story is poorly constructed and badly edited. If you want to see cast members act like wooden robots or over-emote in the worst ways, then watch “Marlowe.”
Directed by Neil Jordan (who co-wrote the drab “Marlowe” screenplay with William Monahan), “Marlowe” is a movie that shouldn’t be as inadequate as it is. It’s disappointing that “Marlowe” came from Jordan and Monahan, who are both capable of doing much better work in the movie genre of crime dramas. Jordan wrote and directed the 1992 vibrant thriller “The Crying Game,” for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Monahan is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 2005 twist-filled remake “The Departed,” for which Monahan earned an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
There’s nothing Oscar-worthy about “Marlowe,” which plods along at sluggish pace and is just a lazy compilation of repetitive scenes and awkwardly delivered dialogue. “Marlowe” (which takes place in the Los Angeles area in 1939) doesn’t do any justice to novelist Raymond Chandler’s originally created character Philip Marlowe, the private investigator who’s the protagonist of this atrocious movie. Several films and two TV series have been made about Marlowe. The 2023 version of “Marlowe” (which is based on John Banville’s 2014 novel “The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Mystery”) is by far the worst on-screen adaptation of a Marlowe story.
Liam Neeson is also miscast as Marlowe, who is presented in this very misguided movie as another rehashed version of Neeson’s Bryan Mills character in the “Taken” action movie series. In this subpar “Marlowe” film, Marlowe has the fight skills of a movie stunt person, while his detective skills seem like an afterthought. And never mind that Marlowe is supposed to be in his late 30s to early 40s, born and raised an American, while Neeson (who was in his late 60s when this movie was filmed) is originally from Ireland and doesn’t even try to hide his Irish accent when playing Marlowe.
“Marlowe” has some gorgeous outdoor scenery (the movie was filmed in Barcelona and Dublin, with both cities convincingly substituting for 1939 Los Angeles), but the movie’s cinematoraphy is an uneven mix of warm glows and muddy ugliness, depending on the scene. The movie’s production design and costume design are aesthetically pleasing. However, all of that doesn’t match the relentlessly dour and hollow presentation of the story’s characters.
In the beginning of the movie, Marlowe (a bachelor with no children and no romantic attachments) is hired by married wealthy socialite Clare Cavendish (played by Diane Kruger) to find her missing lover Nico Peterson (played by François Arnaud, shown mostly in flashbacks). Nico is a younger man who worked as a prop master and occasional actor in movies. Clare says that Nico also made money by fraudulently selling junk as antiques.
Marlowe isn’t judgmental about this extramarital affair, but Clare explains to him that she and her husband Richard Cavendish (played by Patrick Muldoon) have “an arrangement.” Clare also makes sure to let Marlowe know that she has more money than Richard has. Whatever “arrangement” that Clare and Richard have, it doesn’t prevent Richard from being rude to Marlowe when the two men first meet each other with Clare nearby. Richard tells Marlowe to “go fuck himself” before Richard walks away from the conversation. Clare says to Marlowe to explain Richard’s terrible manners: “He must think there’s something between us—something sexual.”
The problem with Clare saying that Nico is still alive is that Nico has been declared dead from a hit-and-run car accident that happened outside of an exclusive social club called the Corbata Club, where Clare and Nico would frequently meet up. Nico’s half-sister Lynn Peterson (played by Daniela Melchior) identified the body at the morgue before the body was cremated. However, Clare insists to Marlowe that Nico is still alive, because Clare heard that people who knew Nico have seen him alive since that fateful accident. What really happened to Nico?
During this investigation, Marlowe encounters the expected array of shady and corrupt characters. Corbata Club manager Floyd Hansen (played by Danny Huston) has no qualms in telling Marlowe that he covers up scandals for the club’s best customers. Dorothy Quincannon (played by Jessica Lange), Clare’s domineering mother, who is a faded Hollywood actress, is quick to tell Marlowe that Clare has a mental illness that Clare probably inherited from Clare’s father, an oil mogul who drove off of a cliff in La Jolla, California, before Clare was born.
Joe Green (played by Ian Hart) is a sarcastic police officer, who lets Marlowe walk away from crime scenes caused by Marlowe, without even questioning Marlowe. Lou Hendricks (played by Alan Cumming) is an arrogant fixer whose clients are wealthy people. Cedric (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is Lou’s driver, who knows how to keep secrets. Meanwhile, one of the few trustworthy characters in “Marlowe” is Marlowe’s secretary Hilda (played by Stella Stocker), but the movie makes her so generic and sidelined, she ulimately becomes insignificant. It’s a wasted opportunity to create a fascinating character who knows Marlowe very well.
“Marlowe” becomes a tedious mush of Marlowe blandly interviewing people at various locations; Marlowe getting into fist fights where he’s always outnumbered but always seems to win these fights; and Marlowe listening to the catty comments that Clare and Dorothy have to say about each other. This mother and daughter have a love/hate relationship that is mostly hate. After a while, this family feud becomes monotonous and a chore to watch.
While some of the “Marlowe” cast members seem to be acting on an emotionally aloof autopilot (this is especially true of Neeson and Kruger), other cast members (such as Huston and Cumming) ham it up to the point where their characters almost become parodies. Lange seems to be doing her best to bring some spicy intrigue to this film, but she doesn’t have enough screen time and is overshadowed by the cringeworthy acting by most of the other cast members. It doesn’t help that she’s given awful lines of dialogue to say, such as this mind-numbing statement that Carol says to Marlowe: “You know what they say about the boys’ club. There is one.”
With the direction, screenplay and acting a tonal mess, that leaves the mystery about Nico to possibly be the film’s saving grace. But “Marlowe” bungles that mystery too. When secrets are revealed, so much of it is rushed and looks very “only in a movie” fake. This uninspired flop is about famed detective Marlowe looking for a missing person. Too bad “Marlowe” is missing what it should have had: a good presentation of a classic detective story.
Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment released “Marlowe” in U.S. cinemas on February 15, 2023.