Where’s Marlowe? (1998)

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Two flies on the wall of the PI’s office!
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US / 99 minutes / color with some bw / Western Sandblast, H2O Paramount Dir: Daniel Pyne Pr: Clayton Townsend Scr: John Mankiewicz, Daniel Pyne Cine: Greg Gardiner Cast: Miguel Ferrer, Mos Def, John Livingston, Allison Dean, John Slattery, Elizabeth Schofield, Barbara Howard, Clayton Rohner, Miguel Sandoval, David Newsom, Olivia Rosewood, Kirk Baltz, Bill McKinney, Heather McComb, Wendy Crewson.

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A mockumentary in much the same spirit as Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap (1985) but focusing not on rock but on another supposedly glamorous profession, that of the noirish private eye.

The last documentary made by A.J. Edison (Livingston) and Wilton “Wilt” Crawley (Def), a three-hour epic called Water in the Apple: How New Yorkers Get their Water, was a tad unsuccessful—to euphemize. “I don’t believe you can cover a topic of that magnitude in less than three hours,” according to A.J. “And I don’t care what the festival people say.”

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A.J. (John Livingston) and Wilt (Mos Def) spy on some sinful canoodling.

(As an aside, the notion that the story of New York’s water supplies is an inherently boring topic seems rather askew. It’s a fascinating tale, and I’d happily watch a documentary about it. Okay, maybe not a documentary three hours long.)

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Joe (Miguel Ferrer) fancies himself as a screen personality.

And so they go in search of a subject that might have greater commercial potential . . . which leads them to the LA detective agency Boone & Murphy Inquiries and an agreement to make a documentary about the day-to-day operation of their business. One partner, Joe Boone (Ferrer), is very keen on the idea, both for publicity and because he has dreams of being a media personality. By contrast, his business partner and longtime friend, Kevin “Murph” Murphy (Slattery), regards the whole enterprise as an undesirable intrusion and a waste of time.

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Angie (Allison Dean), the requisite lovely receptionist.

Their lovely receptionist (because every PI needs a lovely receptionist), Angela “Angie” (Dean), likes laughing at Wilt. And Joe. Men in general, in fact. Through giggles she explains one of the outstanding bills. a bill from the county hospital: “Murphy got bit on the ass by a parrot.”

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Murph (John Slattery) wants nothing to do with the documentary.

“Look for the lie,” is Joe’s catchphrase. “Always look for the lie.”

It soon becomes clear to the moviemakers that the daily activities of Boone & Murphy Inquiries are not going to keep audiences glued to the edges of their seats: daft old ladies, disputes over dogs pooping on neighboring lawns (“Our client, Mr. Rivers, . . . is getting death threats from this guy over alleged canine malfeasance,” summarizes Joe), etc. Things heat up all the way as far as tepid when the company’s hired by Jake Pierson (Newsom) to track down his runaway daughter; Joe finds the girl, Stacy (Rosewood), working as a hooker, but it turns out Pierson isn’t her father but her creepy, pedophile ex-English teacher, so Joe gives her the retainer Pierson paid and lets her carry on hooking. In fact, Joe is remarkably generous in his dealings with everyone; is he handing out largess simply for the cameras or is his generosity one of the reasons Boone & Murphy Inquiries is so broke?

We also find that Joe’s forte is not as a screen presenter. Wandering around downtown LA, using this as a pretext to talk about the famous Black Dahlia murder of 1947, he repeatedly fails to identify the relevant site while also claiming that George Marshall’s 1946 Raymond Chandler-scripted film noir The BLUE DAHLIA, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, was based on the case: “I don’t know why they changed it to ‘Blue.’”

And then there arrives a new client: Sonny “Beep” Collins (Rohner). His wife is having an affair with someone, but he doesn’t know when, where or with whom. Joe takes the case, soon finds the motel where the latest liaison is under way, and discovers that the lover is . . . his partner Murph.

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Sonny Collins (Clayton Rohner) is in tears over his wife’s alleged betrayal of their marriage vows.

Murph walks out of the partnership but is soon demanding that Joe do him one last favor: drive him to Mexico, where he can disappear. Clearly Boone & Murphy Inquiries has finally tripped over that big, Black Dahlia-scale case that Joe has always dreamed of.

The trouble is, he no longer has a partner. But then Wilt has an idea: couldn’t he and A.J. fill in as Joe’s partners? A.J. is unkeen—“So this is a documentary about a couple of documentary guys who’re making a documentary about a private investigator, [and] now they’re going to bail him out”—but sees the logic of salvaging his and Wilt’s investment to date in the movie.

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A.J. (John Livingston) later begins to fancy himself as a detective.

The next big development in the case is when Sonny’s real wife, Monica Collins (Schofield), arrives. Sonny (“I set him up in the Beeper business so I would know where he was all the time”) has been having an affair—the latest in a string of them—with his secretary, Emma Huffington (Howard), and it was Emma who was cheating on Sonny with Murph. And then Murph, supposedly in Mexico, is found murdered in Emma’s apartment, with Joe as the cops’ Suspect #1 . . .

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Emma Huffington (Barbara Howard) is distraught at the complexity of the events surrounding her.

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The real Monica Collins (Elizabeth Schofield) arrives on the scene.

The mockumentary format allows the story to overlap with real life (or supposed real life) in an appealing way. There’s also an overlap with the earlier documentary, Water in the Apple. The movie opens with a fairly extended set of clips from this piece, done in black and white. The monochrome continues through the near-deserted post-premiere party, the high point of which is that one of the movie’s expert talking heads, Dr. Ninki Bregman (Crewson), has a noisily illicit adventure with A.J. in a linen closet. Water in the Apple returns to the scene when A.J. and Wilt arrange a screening of it for Joe and Angie. Angie kind of likes it, but Joe decrees it hasn’t got enough sex.

Everyone’s a critic.

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A.J. and Wilt put on a screening of Water in the Apple for Angie and Joe.

Yet there’s another crossover: the supposedly noirish ethos of Boone & Murphy Inquiries rubs off on the two moviemakers. At one point A.J. finds himself saying:

“The sun was like a fried egg floating in a glass of liquid gravel when we arrived at Monica Collins’ house. It was a modest place, tidy, just a shade smaller than Yankee Stadium. The air stunk of fertilizer, her money, the sce––”

And at a much later stage, in a different context, we have Wilt telling A.J.:

“I don’t mean to sound critical, but it sounds a lot like the end of The Maltese Falcon.”

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Wilt (Mos Def) and Joe (Miguel Ferrer) on the trail.

Where’s Marlowe?—which is also the main title of the documentary Wilt and A.J. are making, complete with an obligatory pretentious subtitle, Examining the Private Investigator in Late 20th Century America—is not a riotous comedy, although it has many funny moments and some good verbal gags. Instead, it’s genial, it’s persistently entertaining, and it has a genuine undercurrent of quirkiness that’s very appealing. It represents the first named role for Mos Def. Everything is held together nicely by an impressive performance from Miguel Ferrer as the good-hearted if not especially bright PI Joe Boone.

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