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WHERE'S MARLOWE?

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Miguel Ferrer, Mos Def, John Livingston, John Slattery
Director:  Daniel Pyne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  July 18, 2000

Film ***1/2

Where’s Marlowe? is a hip, fresh, and fast comedy that takes the so-called “mockumentary” a step further, by taking us into the filmmaking process itself.  In other words, as one of the movie makers muses, it becomes a documentary about two guys making a documentary about a private detective.  So, in addition to a Spinal Tap feel, the picture also derives its humor by kidding the “film within a film” style that Truffaut made famous in Day For Night.  I’d never even heard of this film before it showed up at my door, but I found it a funny, original surprise that kept me smiling from start to finish.

The opening moments made me laugh and laugh hard…and come to think of it, there weren’t any jokes!  We get a brief look at documentarians AJ (Livingston) and Wilt’s (Def) latest opus, a black and white picture about…well, water.  Where it comes from.  Where it goes.  How we get it.  (“Around here, we just turn on a tap,” a character later offers).  The humor is in the spoofing of the documentary film, and just how pretentious the filmmakers can be.  We watch shot after shot of water to the tune of bombastic, swelling classical music.  We also see the lukewarm reception from the audience.  Later in the movie, the duo meets a young woman who was there for the film, but missed it because she was…ah, otherwise engaged.

For their next project, they decide to make a film about the private investigation team of Boone (Ferrer) and Murphy (Slattery).  Boone is a dry, straight laced PI that’s more than willing to be the subject of a movie.  Murphy is less enthusiastic, always screaming for the camera to be turned off.  In one particularly good scene, we look down on the two men from a strange, out of the way angle while Boone promises Murphy that the guys aren’t going to film him anymore…yet, here we are watching the footage.  That’s one of the better running gags in the film; another involves how each person reacts for the first time when they realize they’re being filmed.

Making a documentary is always a gamble.  You can spend weeks or months of guerilla filmmaking, never knowing how or when the “story” might end, and when it’s all finished, be left with nothing worth putting on a screen.  At first, it seems our heroes have gotten themselves into exactly that kind of situation.  The PI firm is broke, and cases are so few and far between that Boone actually accepts a job to find out which neighborhood dog is relieving himself on a guy’s lawn (“Canine malfeasance,” he calls it).

A big break comes in the form of a beeper salesman who hires Boone to find out with whom his wife is having an affair.  Boone investigates the “alleged tramp”, and seems to strike gold…until it turns out the guilty party is his own partner.  After a blow up, Murphy leaves, and Boone sadly confesses that this may be the end of the firm.  He can’t go on with no money and no help.

Thus, the dilemma:  do the filmmakers pitch in and help out?  If they do, they’ve violated the sacred code of the documentary, which is not to get involved with or influence their subjects.  But if they don’t, the project is scrapped, and their work and money have been wasted.  On the other hand…why not change the subject matter?  The film could, in fact, be a documentary about two documentarians who become private eyes, right?  This kind of reasoning and logic plays a big part in the overall film’s comedy.  From now on, we are following the guys on the job with Boone, as well as in their little room putting their film together.

And by the time you’ve gotten a handle on the comic premise, the adultery scenario blows up into a full blown murder mystery, with our intrepid movie makers suddenly in over their heads, but having gone too far to back out.  And the lines of symmetry in their own project become equally confused, especially when Boone quits at one point, leaving them to investigate the murder by themselves (“Why are we following the wife?”  “We don’t know where anyone else is.”), until Boone returns and decides to take over the filming.  It sounds complicated, but trust me, it all plays out well.

By the time it’s over, you realize you’ve watched an ambitious film, one that wasn’t afraid to try and cover a variety of cinematic subjects and formats under one blanket, but managed to keep on top of it all and remain a funny, original, and enjoyable ride from beginning to end…I especially loved the final note, kidding one of the most familiar clichés of noir:  the “if-you’re-reading-this-it-means-I’m-dead” note.  Inspired!

Video ***

This is a mostly good anamorphic offering from Paramount, with no major complaints.  I’m guessing there wasn’t a big budget for cinematography for this project, but overall, the look is quite good, with some minor inconsistencies from shot to shot.  Generally speaking, sunlit outdoor shots are beautifully rendered, with good sharpness and detail and natural, well contained coloring.  Indoor shots vary a little bit, and occasionally look a bit softer with a touch of bleeding here and there, but nothing horrendous, or even distracting, really…just noticeable.  I’m guessing that has more to do with the filming than with the DVD transfer.  Consider the mockumentary premise, the minor inconsistencies actually seem to help the overall effect of the picture.

Audio ***

This is a straightforward 5.1 mix…perfectly fine, but unremarkable.  Most of the action is front centered, as you might expect given the nature of the film.  The rear channels are accessed sparsely, and mostly only for background noises and such, and the .1 channel hardly comes into play at all.  The movie is mostly dialogue oriented, and as such, there are no complaints as far as clarity or distortion, and most of it plays very nicely across the range of the front stage.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Just the facts:  Where’s Marlowe? was an overlooked comic gem that hopefully will find the audience it deserves on video.  It’s spirited, smart, ambitious, and most importantly, it’s funny and delivers the goods.