Broken Lizard comedy troupe member Paul Soter makes his helming debut with “Watching the Detectives,” a picaresque screwball laffer sustained by leads Cillian Murphy and Lucy Liu in roles they keep buoyant even when the storyline seems to chase its own tale. Set in a videostore staffed by movie nerds, pic aims for “High Fidelity” hijinks as a daffy woman shakes things up with her philosophy of doing rather than watching. Produced by rising Gotham shingle Plum Pictures, this entertainment-lite offering could see moderate biz, but any real action will come from ancillary.
Vidrental proprietor Neil (Murphy) is the consummate visual consumer but rarely an active participant in life. Caught off-balance by the flirtatious confidence of new customer Violet (Liu), he finagles a date almost without realizing it and ends up in his rival’s megastore after hours, where the night turns into a madcap race to put all the DVDs into the wrong cases.
He quickly learns this is her everyday life: Afflicted with what she calls “bore-aphobia,” Violet creates adventures wherever she goes, pulling Neil out of his staid cinephilia and into a world of riotous unpredictability. Unlike Streisand’s character in “What’s Up, Doc?” Violet actively orchestrates chaos, staging arrests and whatnot to spice up life and keep Neil on his toes.
When he spies her making nice with a musician at a bar, Neil sets out to impress Violet, transforming his shop into a stage and donning rock-star gear for an uncharacteristic performance. But soon her off-the-wall, sometimes dangerous antics and storytelling become too much for Neil’s less adventurous constitution. Romance, however, has already blossomed, and he soon learns he can’t return to a normal, boring pre-Violet life.
Pic is a long way from the sophomoric humor of other Soter-scripted titles such as “Super Troopers” and “Beerfest,” and targeted more to first dates than Broken Lizard’s usual demographic of frat parties. Despite the frequent movie talk, especially with fellow dweebs Jonathan (Jason Sudeikis) and Lucien (Michael Panes), there are few genuine cinephile references or borrowings, ensuring no one feels left out of the loop.
Cute scenes of misunderstanding — the lifeblood of screwball — follow one after another, but once the whole crazy-chick thing reaches saturation, the plot has nowhere else to go. Though never less than appealing, one note reigns supreme, and anything more complex (such as where Violet comes from and how she makes a living) isn’t addressed. A funny flashback showing past incarnations (punker, New Wave groupie) is played for laughs but doesn’t fill in any blanks.
Liu attacks the role with gusto, using her considerable charm to keep the character from turning into an annoyance. Hollywood still doesn’t seem sure what to do with her, though she’s more than proven her range and is certainly worthy of good romantic comedy roles. Plus she plays well with others, and the chemistry with the versatile Murphy undoubtedly carries the picture. He’s not only got the accent right, but the physical mannerisms as well — an average, likable Joe with a movie fixation.
Soter scrupulously avoids pinpointing the locale, which feels more like a Midwest college town than the outer New York boroughs it was actually shot in. Editing is smooth, keeping the action and comedy rolling at a brisk pace, while overall look is bright and well-tuned.