“Where’s Marlowe?” started out as a prospective tube series; when that didn’t pan out, Paramount and ABC gave helmer and co-scenarist Daniel Pyne funds to expand the pilot to feature length. Mix of indie-filmmaking satire and private-eye genre sendup still doesn’t quite jell, however, leaving the offbeat, thinly amusing project a long shot for success in any format.
B&W intro has aspiring NYU film school grads Crawley (Mos Def) and Edison (John Livingston) premiering their three-hour epic about Manhattan’s water-supply sources to a bored few at the Utica Township Film Festival. After that less-than-triumphant debut, they realize they need a “hotter” subject for their next docu and settle on modern-day private investigators as embodied by hapless L.A. dicks Boone (Miguel Ferrer) and Murphy (John Slattery).
Latter duo, abetted by office secretary Angela (Allison Dean), are running just ahead of the creditors, reduced to pursuing such barrel-bottom “cases” as a dog-excretion dispute. One sleazy client’s order that his wife be shadowed for possible infidelity, however, grows more suspicious as the detectives dig in. First, the “real” wife — an oversexed, mysterious blonde, of course — turns up, claiming her husband is really tracking his mistress. Then it seems Murphy himself was secretly involved with said fair-haired spouse; this leads to his apparent violent demise.
Young docmeisters, entering into the neo-Bogart spirit, don requisite dark sunglasses to help grief-stricken, soft-hearted Boone unravel this puzzle. In spite of their collective ineptitude, they finally stumble onto a solution.
Pyne (and co-author John Mankiewicz) are aiming for a shaggy, gently satirical latter-day spin on classic noir themes a la Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” Robert Benton’s “The Late Show” and recent Elmore Leonard adaptations. But they don’t come up with the truly eccentric characters required, nor does the convoluted “thriller” plot draw even slight interest. The quasi-“documentary” angle, meanwhile, controls feature’s look (all jiggly, hand-held p.o.v. shots, with a brief Super 8 interlude when filmmakers’ usual camera breaks down) to wearying effect, while adding little pointed comic fodder of its own.
Pic does get better as it goes along and strikes the odd off-kilter comic spark on occasion throughout. (One funny moment has leads accosting a street prostitute for a case — only to learn she’s a former film student, too.) But it never rises above amiable time-filler status. Ferrer easily slips into world-weary, deadpan mode here, but other players make a less defined impression due to pic’s indecisiveness about whether to focus on a naturalistic or farcical tenor.
Tech aspects are OK. Original score, played by Tom Vertino and the Surf Mummys, conveys a retro-lounge/B-pic flavor more than anything else in “Where’s Marlowe?”