Starring: Cillian Murphy, Lucy Liu, Michael Panes, and Jason Sudeikis
Director: Paul Soder
Rating: Four of Ten Stars
Neil (Murphy), a self-professed film geek and owner of a small video store, has his life turned upside-down when he falls in love with a thrill-seeking woman who may actually be certifiable insane (Liu).
While I was watching "Watching the Detectives", my mind kept flashing back to "Bringing Up Baby", a movie where a decent guy finds his life demolished by a crazed prankster but who finds himself in love with the girl and the excitement she brings to his days. The same dynamic is in effect here, but transplanted to modern-day and set a little bit further down the social latter.
Unfortunately, whenever "Bringing Up Baby" came to mind, this movie was found lacking. Now, it may not be entirely fair to compare anything to one of the greatest romantic comedies ever created, but almost everything that made that movie so great is what's missing in "Watching the Detectives".
"Bringing Up Baby" had a rapid-fire, never-stop-for-breath pace which made the craziness seem even crazier and even the calm moments seem like the characters were running a mile a minute. It was lean with not a second on the screen that was wasted. This movie is nowhere near as swift or trim, and it seems to be jogging from joke to joke rather than sprinting. The pacing of the film is far to languid for the kind of movie it wants to be, which is a modern screwball romantic comedy.
Another bigger problem with the film is that Lucy Liu is no Katherine Hepburn. While Liu is a fun and sexy actress who I've enjoyed even in parts that I felt were badly written (such has her role as the love interest in "Lucky Number Slevin"), she just doesn't have the charisma needed to pull off the sort of character she portrays in this film. She has more energy than a nuclear reactor, tons of sex appeal, and, like always, there seems to be a little bit of crazy lurking just below the surface, but without the charm and grace of a Hepburn, her character comes across as mean-spirited and vicious rather than just a little over-the-top and ultimately loveable. Heck, if Liu had been able to project innocence and naivety like Heather Angel in "Half an Angel" was able to do, she might have worked in the part... but that is even more remote a quality in Liu's bag of acting tricks. While Cillian Murphy is just about perfect in his role, his falling for Liu and tolerating her placing him in real danger just isn't believable, because she doesn't have the "right stuff" for her part.
It also doesn't help that the script never draws back the curtain on the mystery that is Lucy Liu's Violet. She remains as strange and distant to the audience at the end of the film as she was when she first appears in the video store. If the screenwriters had allowed Neil, and the viewers, to get a real glimpse into her world instead of always seeing the results of her lies and manipulations, the character would have seemed a bit more sympathetic and Neil's falling for her a bit more credible. As it stands, the fact Violet remains a cypher makes Liu's lack of charm all the more damaging to the film.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it's trying to modernize a type of film that simply can't be made today. The more films I watch, the more convinced I become that actors simply aren't trained in ways that allow them to effectively play the sort of characters found in the old Howard Hawkes-type comedies.
"Watching the Detectives" might be worth seeking out if you're a huge fan of Lucy Liu or Cillian Murphy, but if you are attracted to it, because of the promise of a modern-day screwball comedy, you're going to be disappointed.