Watching The Detectives, Paul Soter's feature debut, is intended to be a cinephile's movie, a geek cinephile's movie, where the hapless proprietor of video store and slacker haven is seduced by a femme fatale who walks in off the street. The tale than unfolds from there is every film nerd's unfulfilled dream.
The comedy can play on the wish-fulfillment of its natural self-absorbed video-addict audience, which has plenty of time on its hands, and there's enough to keep them occupied for multiple rentals. Its two stars (Cillian Murphy and Lucy Liu) should also be a strong help at the box office in the US and abroad.
The principal audience for should be in the United States, but the quirky comedy could work well in Japan and Korea, where allusive spoofs with nerdy protagonists are part of the film culture.
Watching The Detectives starts out as a slacker film. Neil (Murphy) runs a video store where like-minded geeks gather on its couches and test each other on obscure trivia. Only one thing is out there to upset their inertia: the pressure from a huge chain that threatens to crush the alternative shop. Then sexy Violet (Liu) arrives and asks Neil for a recommendation. She sees the eager credulous nerd as fresh bait. In case you haven't guessed, he's smitten.
In a formula that's as old as the melodramas that preceded the earliest films, Murphy plays the straight man to Liu's Jean Harlow/Marlene Dietrich minx, complete with costumed film spoofs. One plotline is a simple love story between gullible guy and mischievous girl. Another unfolds after the two trash their competitor's store and steal money. And there's plenty to laugh at in can-you-top-this' gags.
Murphy brings zest to his store manager's role, adding an unexpected bravado to the character who's still beaten down or fooled by Liu at every turn. Liu is relentless as she toys with him, like a cat whose prey has been trapped too easily.
Her character echoes films like Something Wild or What's Up Doc' or the music videos of tauntress Gwen Stefani, but somehow Liu keeps this low-budget caper fresh, in part with an ingenious wardrobe that sometimes looked scavenged from thrift shops by costume designers Kurt & Bar.
You can see that Liu is drawing from her characters in Ally McBeal and Charlie's Angels, but if you're looking for a female character with vulnerability, this isn't your film. Nor is this a movie for anyone who lacks patience for sophomoric slackerisms.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was clearly one inspiration for this comedy, as was Play It Again, Sam. Yet the film isn't just about film jokes: Paul Soter is a veteran of the Broken Lizard comedy group and a writer and actor in Puddle Cruiser and Super Troopers - and he knows how to get the right mileage out of a gag.
At Tribeca, Watching The Detectives looked grainy and inexpensively shot by Christophe Lanzenberg. (All shooting locations were in New York, but the slacker store and environs looked a lot like Austin or any college town that supports these places.)
Production designer John Nyomarkay finds the right tone in Neil's overstuffed store and in the cluttered slacker digs where Neil and Violet live, alll familiar indie territory.
Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Jeff W Canavan