‘Marlowe’ Review: The Adventures of a Worn-Out Gumshoe
Liam Neeson and Neil Jordan try to breathe new life into Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero.
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By A.O. Scott
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In “Marlowe,” somebody quotes Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan poet and playwright. There’s also a reference to James Joyce on the subject of tea. But of course the movie’s main literary business, its principal reason for existing, is implied by the fedoras and floppy neckties, the cigarettes and slugs of whiskeys, the flatfoots and dangerous blondes.
Philip Marlowe, wearily played by Liam Neeson, is the hard-bitten private detective invented by Raymond Chandler in a series of stories and novels mostly published in the 1930s and ’40s. Back then, he was played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946), and later by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye.” “Marlowe,” directed by Neil Jordan and set in 1939, isn’t based on any of Chandler’s work, but on “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” a 2014 Chandler pastiche (or tribute, if you prefer) written by the Irish novelist John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
As is customary, the story begins with the appearance in Marlowe’s office of a woman, who engages his services as tobacco smoke curls in the moody sun that angles through the slatted blinds. A simple missing-person case, it seems at first, involving a man of dubious morals. Complications rapidly ensue, and Marlowe finds himself trading morose witticisms with members of Southern California high society as well as assorted lowlifes. The woman is named Clare Cavendish, and she’s played by Diane Kruger as part of a mother-daughter pair of femmes fatales. Her mother, Dorothy (Jessica Lange), is a wealthy and well-connected former screen star.
The cast is large and the costume and set designers have been kept busy with period details, but “Marlowe” neither dutifully copies nor cleverly updates detective-movie tropes. The dialogue is spiced with profanities and anachronisms, and the plot moves ponderously through a thicket of complications. The case of the missing gigolo, who may or may not have been run over by a car outside an exclusive club, leads Marlowe into a shadowy world of drug and sex trafficking.
Neeson fights off groups of much younger bad guys, as is his habit at this stage in his career. His Marlowe is a lumbering, melancholy figure, not so much cynical as bored by the endless corruption and duplicity he encounters. Some of that is embodied by accomplished performers — Danny Huston is always good as an eloquent rotter — but there isn’t much intrigue or conviction. The stakes, which somehow involve the fate of a Hollywood studio as well as the lives of motley strivers and schemers, seem trivial. The question of who did what and why is, at best, academic.
Rated R. Smoking, swearing and gunplay. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters.
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