The film begins with black-and-white footage from Water in the Apple (How New Yorkers Get Their Water), a crushingly detailed three-hour-plus documentary about the Manhattan water supply. When the movie bombs at the Utica Township Festival du Film, its directors -- two young NYU film school grads named A.J. Edison (John Livingston) and Wilt Crawley (Mos Def) -- decide that the time has come to take on more marketable subject matter. They begin to follow around L.A. private eye Joe Boone (Miguel Ferrer), recording his every move for a film tentatively titled Where's Marlowe? (Examining the Life of the Private Investigator in Late 20th-Century America).
Boone turns out to be a better match for Edison and Crawley than they could have imagined: He's every bit as clueless and incompetent in his field as they are in theirs. Partnered with Murphy (John Slattery), his slightly less-inept best friend, Boone runs a desperately penurious operation that is held together only by the skill and patience of secretary/girl Friday Angela (Allison Dean). When yet another case goes awry, Boone tries to bolster Murphy's confidence: "We can do this! We're not morons, you know!"
"We are morons," Murphy replies. "If we weren't morons, we'd have real jobs."
Boone may envision himself as the sort of P.I. he's read about in countless pulp thrillers, but he's actually the most gullible, big-hearted sap you'd ever want to meet. He can barely handle an assignment to determine who's stealing Slushees at the local convenience store. He puts on a stern demeanor to narrate a James Ellroy-ish tour of famous L.A. crime scenes for the documentarians but gets all his information wrong. When he finally does something right, his actions inadvertently drive his partner away. In order to rescue their film (and their investment), Edison and Crawley decide to pitch in and join the firm. ("I love you guys!" Boone weeps, giving them a big hug when they announce their plans.) They take turns, with one of them working as Boone's assistant while the other holds the camera.
Of course, they're not much help, despite Boone's best counsel. When they ask him how to dress, he advises: "Either blend in completely or dress so loudly no one will want to look at you." And they're just as fatuously taken with the idea of being detectives as Boone. "The sun was like a fried egg on liquid gravel," Edison intones for the camera on his first day out, hoping to sound like a film-noir narrator.
Ironically, they do end up (arguably) being better suited for the job than the woeful Boone. And their ineptitude accidentally leads Boone toward a real solution to a real crime for the first time in his career.
This sort of plot -- idiot private eye's missteps leading him circuitously to a real crime -- was amusingly handled in Alan Rudolph's underrated Love at Large (1990) and in Jules Feiffer's witty novel Ackroyd, which someone really ought to film someday. More important to note, however, is that Where's Marlowe? is another signal of the growing popularity of the so-called "mockumentary" form. It used to be that years would elapse between films like Real Life (1979) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984). But mockumentaries are becoming common enough to constitute a full-fledged genre these days: Even before the unbelievable success of The Blair Witch Project, the Nineties gave us Man Bites Dog, And God Spoke..., Forgotten Silver, Tribulation 99, Tigrero, Man of the Year and numerous TV spoofs like Curse of the Blair Witch and Behind Chef Aid. The ability to shoot cheaply is no doubt a major factor, but the results would be the aesthetic justification for the technique anyway.
Where's Marlowe? is certainly worthy of inclusion with the best of them. While the lion's share of the credit must go to Pyne and Mankiewicz, it would be shortsighted to underestimate the qualities Ferrer brings to the project. Ever since his appearance in Robocop -- uttering "That's life in the big city!" with perfect callousness -- Ferrer has never been less than good (even in junk like Steven King's Night Flier and DeepStar Six) and has been downright wonderful on Twin Peaks and several other TV shows. (We will only mention in passing his rock band, comic books and participation in Barnes and Barnes videos.) The guy, frankly, is money in the bank. Where's Marlowe? allows him to step away from the contemptuous SOBs and genuinely tough heroes he usually plays. Not surprisingly, given the humor and humanity that informed his portrayal of Albert Rosenfield on Twin Peaks, he is, on top of everything else, damned funny.