Watching the Detectives is a 2007 romantic comedy film written and directed by Paul Soter. The film stars Cillian Murphy as the film geek owner of an independent video rental store whose life is turned upside down when femme fatale Lucy Liu comes into his life. The film, which played film festivals in 2007, did not secure distribution to theaters and instead went straight to DVD. The film opens on a dark film noir black and white scene where a 1940s style detective shoots a villain—for trying to return a late video. The lights come up, revealing that we are watching a commercial for Gumshoe Video, and the detective is Neil (Cillian Murphy), the store's owner, who is premiering the ad for friends at a party at his modest cinephile video store. His girlfriend Denise (Heather Burns), who appears in the commercial, does not show up at the celebration. The next day, Neil meets Denise at a restaurant, but before he goes to the table, he gets a waiter (Steve Lemme) to spill a glass of water on her, just to watch her overreact. She is not amused by the prank, and tells him he needs to get his life together instead of just watching movies and playing immature games.
Watching the Detectives proves that even if you adopt a cool-sounding Elvis Costello song title for your movie, that won’t necessarily make it good.
Despite the presence of indie darling Cillian Murphy and teen lust subject Lucy Liu in the leading roles, Detectives is pretty much dead from frame one. Even mega-fans of either of the headliners will have trouble muddling through it.
If the pink font and blue heart on the cover don’t tip you off, this is a romantic comedy (and perhaps an attempt for Murphy to break out of zombie movies and into the date movie genre). Murphy plays Neil, a video store owner who runs an artsy shop despite the megachain across the street. He seems to have no customers and very few movies, but somehow he stays in business. Into this scene comes Violet (Liu), who might as well wear a hat that reads ‘I Am the Wacky Love Interest.’ Violet appears to have only a vague structure to her life, which gives her lots of time to engage in endlessly pranking Neil. First she gets him to agree to hide out in the mega video store after closing, then rearrange the movies in the boxes in the shelves. Funny, until she hires a couple guys to pretend to be cops and shake him down after the crime. Her tricks get progressively crueler — culminating in his robbing an underground casino and nearly being killed — but Neil sticks with Violet pretty much all along.
There’s a thread of uniqueness here — and lord knows Detectives hardly resembles your standard Sandra Bullock flick — but the tragedy is that Detectives is almost never funny. Murphy seems uncomfortable throughout the film, and Liu’s attempts to put her vampy femme fatale persona behind are disastrous, resulting in a hammy, over-reaching attempt to out-goof Anna Faris. It’s a little painful to watch, especially when she invariably busts herself up after each big reveal.
The script doesn’t help much, consisting mostly of a prank-downtime-prank structure that will have you wondering why Neil doesn’t use some of his free time to get a restraining order on Violet. Sure, love is weird, but it’s not this weird. The film tries to appeal to movie buffs, with innumerable references to classic and arthouse flicks, but it comes off more as pandering than homage.
The film is the directorial debut of Broken Lizard troupe member Paul Soter, who casts aside the gross-out frat boy antics of his brethren for a mushy tale of love among the crazies. Given that Detectives went straight to DVD, I imagine we’ll see something more traditional next time.