|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 17 July 2000|
Since "This Is Spinal Tap," one or two fictional, comic documentaries -- sometimes called "mockumentaries" -- are released each year. Most of them have a few laughs, a handful, such as "Waiting for Guffman," have more than a few. But "Where's Marlowe?" is almost alone in going beyond the format to become something new, and welcome. It's about the very act of making a documentary, and it's about grace, courage and dignity.
Writers John Mankiewicz and Daniel Pyne, with Pyne as director, made a very crucial choice in casting, one that made all the difference. Most "mockumentaries" are cast with comic actors, which can pay off splendidly, as with "Spinal Tap," but here the lead is played by Miguel Ferrer, who not only rarely does comedies, he rarely plays likable characters.
And Miguel Ferrer is one of the best actors working anywhere. He hasn't made anywhere near enough movies, but every performance I've seen him give has been precise, imaginative, honest and accomplished. He began in movies as early as 1984, but it was his role as a snarling corporate weasel in "RoboCop" (1987) that first started getting him attention. Many of his roles over the next few years were similar, but then directors started recognizing his versatility. He's played the leading role in a handful of TV movies, some indies and a couple of more or less straight-to-video titles. Eventually, he's going to get the starring role that will clinch his status permanently.
Until then, movies like "Where's Marlowe?" will more than do, thank you very much.
A.J. Edison (John Livingston) and Wilt Crawley (Dante Beze) haven't fared too well as filmmakers; their mammoth documentary on New York's water supply doesn't exactly make people sit up and take notice. At their premiere, no one even eats the canapés. They turn their attention to the opposite coast, and the movie turns to color. They're in Los Angeles to investigate the life and work of a real private detective, and have linked up with the two-man agency owned by Joe Boone (Ferrer) and his long-time friend Murphy (John Slattery). We soon learn that Boone is deeply devoted to his work, even if his ideas about being a private eye come mostly from movies and pulp fiction. He tells Edison and Crawley about the Black Dahlia case, and gets most of the details wrong. It's too close to real life. Murphy just wants the two directors to stop following him around.
Boone says he's looking for his own Black Dahlia case, but "it doesn't have to be a beautiful blonde with a smile carved across her face and her guts ripped out."
A typical case for Boone involves a man who's being annoyed by a neighbor, who's convinced the client's tiny dog is leaving enormous piles of droppings on his lawn. Another woman wants her cat found -- a cartoon cat. With cases like this, it's not surprising that when they're following Boone into a bar, they become sidetracked by a cute hooker who went to film school. The hooker Boone is looking for is a teenage runaway who tells him a story of woe so convincing that he slips her a couple of hundred bucks. Boone is a romantic, a softie, whose big heart is well-hidden behind his practiced, cynical private eye wisecracks.
"Beep" Collins (Clayton Rohner) hires Boone to find out who's been sleeping with his wife -- and to Boone's dismay, he discovers that it's Murphy. And that it wasn't Beep's wife he was sleeping with, but his mistress. Murphy, fed up at last, packs a small box with all his stuff from the office and quits, leaving Boone lonely and Edison and Crawley without a real subject.
And it's at this point that "Where's Marlowe?" smoothly and subtly shifts gears into something more than another mockumentary, even though we continue to see everything through the lens of Edison & Crawley's camera, even when they have to shift over temporally to Super-8mm. They decide to become directly involved in Boone's cases, in effect making a documentary about themselves making a documentary about helping Boone. The real touch of beauty, though, is that the story they're covering -- Murphy's sudden disappearance -- takes on the shape of a classic film noir: "Where's Marlowe?" turns into a detective movie itself. A romantic, old-fashioned score even creeps in for a while -- the rest of the movie, like most real documentaries, has none.
Ferrer's honest performance as this modest but romantic man gives "Where's Marlowe?" its dramatic interest, but the movie is unusually well-done throughout. Most "mockumentaries" are overtly funny (or at least that's the intention), with broadly-drawn, comic characters. But only a couple of the situations, and none of the characters, in "Where's Marlowe?" are treated in that manner. Everything is pitched in a realistic tone, as if this were a real documentary; that's why the slipping into the classic mystery plot is so sly and unexpected. The filmmakers never let Joe Boone lose his dignity; even Edison and Crawley are never caricatured, although they both become more like movie characters when Edison gets caught up in the mystery, and Crawley falls for Joe's resolute secretary/Girl Friday Angela (Allison Dean). While Ferrer stands out, everyone is good, particularly Barbara Howard as Murphy's lover and Elizabeth Schofield as Beep's wife.
Director Daniel Pyne has generally been a writer, shading toward comedy, with titles like "Doc Hollywood" and "The Hard Way" on his resume. He also was a writer on "Pacific Heights," the pretty decent "White Sands" and "Any Given Sunday," and created a few short-lived TV series. Nothing else in his list of credits is remotely like "Where's Marlowe?"
Because this is a fake documentary, the technical aspects of the movie are nothing special; the sound is workable, the cinematography by Greg Gardiner is perfect for what it is, but hardly flashy. Everything about the film is rigorously "realistic." The DVD is a standard, relatively no-frills release, with the standard theatrical trailer; it doesn't offer alternate language tracks. Too bad it also lacks a commentary track; one would be particularly welcome for this movie.
"Where's Marlowe?" didn't get much of a theatrical release, even though the reviews were very favorable and it won "Best Comedy" at the 1999 Santa Monica Film Festival. Maybe this DVD will bring it the wider audience that it, and Miguel Ferrer, deserve.