Forty-four years have passed since a feature film was last built around Raymond Chander’s harder-than-hardboiled fictional detective Philip Marlowe — a screen absence that seems both unduly long and now, in the wake of Neil Jordan’s “Marlowe,” not quite long enough. A phony, flimsy attempt at vintage noir, the film is adapted not from a Chandler work but “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” an authorized Marlowe entry from 2014, by Irish novelist John Banville. Minus Banville’s own knack for literary ventriloquism, however, this all too evidently European co-production can’t help but feel multiple degrees removed from the real thing, not helped by the shuffling, ungainly presence of a wildly miscast Liam Neeson in shoes once filled by Bogart and Mitchum.
Following a low-key premiere as the closing film at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, “Marlowe” will be released Stateside by Open Road Films on December 2 — though even with the big-name cachet of Jordan, Neeson and co-stars Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange, it’s doubtful the film will leave much of a trail before, like many a Philip Marlowe quarry, vanishing without trace. For Jordan — here a long way from the nifty genre acrobatics of “The Crying Game,” or even the winking camp pleasures of 2018’s “Greta” — this feels a particularly listless, pro forma effort, identifiable as his only via the curious Irish anachronisms that pepper his and “The Departed” scribe William Monahan’s allegedly California-set script.
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As it is, Dublin and Barcelona take turns subbing in for Chandler’s fictionalized Los Angeles district of “Bay City,” neither one very convincingly; DP Xavi Gimenez paints over the geographical disparities with a uniform yellow filter that at least lends a fittingly twilit air to proceedings. The year is 1939 — the same year, as it happens, that Marlowe made his literary debut under that name in “The Big Sleep” — but the eponymous detective is a far older, wearier figure than in Chandler’s stories of the era, inclined more toward resigned shrugs than cynical wisecracks, his every line emerging as a kind of sigh.
It’s with this perennially exhausted air that Marlowe enters business with glamorous Irish-American heiress Clare Cavendish (Kruger, sporting platinum-blonde waves and a roving Continental accent), who enlists him to investigate the disappearance of her lover, two-bit Hollywood player Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). Initial probings suggest he was killed at an elite members’ club run by pinstriped thug Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston), though “Marlowe” isn’t about to let its audience go home that early.
Others complicating this living-dead investigation include lascivious gangster Lou Hendricks (a ripe Alan Cumming, saddled with a “back entrance” pun), his ambiguously loyal chauffeur Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, saddled with a dated racial stereotype), and Clare’s former movie star mother Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange, saddled in rigid equestrian garb), a hostile, secretive broad whose question marks only begin with her plummy English delivery. “You’re a long, long way from Tipperary, Dorothy,” Marlowe mutters in the film’s most inadvertently amusing one-liner: The audience may well wonder how close she ever was.
Chandler’s plots were never designed to be neatly disentangled: The best of them of them are so cryptic as to be immersive, drawing readers and viewers into the characters’ own obsessive circling. “Marlowe,” however, offers inscrutability without intrigue, its mystery both too easily solved and too muddily motivated to pass muster, while its various villains and macguffins and red herrings check off genre boxes without building the requisite atmospheric haze. Marlowe himself, meanwhile, should be aloof but not as disengaged as he appears here: The veritable gorge of missing chemistry between Neeson’s gumshoe and Kruger’s femme fatale ensures neither party’s persistence with the case makes a whole lot of sense. “He must sense something between us,” Clare purrs following a prickly encounter between Marlowe and her ineffectual husband, waiting a beat before adding, “Something sexual.” Audiences may be glad of the clarification.
Jordan and Monahan are keen on the kind of dialogue that wouldn’t have got past the Hays Code in film noir’s heyday, yet its preponderance of four-letter words and franker allusions leaves “Marlowe” feeling more artificial than edgy, a permissive cosplay exercise rather than a fresh genre intervention. Where Robert Altman’s 1970s-set “The Long Goodbye” ingeniously rewrote Marlowe for a then-new Hollywood, Jordan’s film is both resolutely conservative in its period framing and irksomely postmodern in its audience pandering: A strained Leni Riefenstahl shoutout is played for laughs, though the film risks no historical or political ideas of its own.
Indeed, the most contemporary embellishment here may be Neeson’s occasional, very non-noir switch-flip into all-out “Taken” mode, when his Marlowe briefly sets aside the droopy ennui to dispatch baddies with find-you-and-kill-you fisticuffs. “I’m getting too old for this,” he even growls after battering another disposable heavy, at which point it’s not clear who or what the joke is on: the film’s oddly placed star, its half-heartedly revived hero, or the genre it only intermittently appears to love. “The key to Hollywood is knowing when the game is up,” Lange’s imperious diva advises Marlowe at one point; “Marlowe,” on the other hand, never gets the memo.
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