Smart Phillip (Mazaný Filip) – Václav Marhoul, 2003

Humphrey Bogart. Elliot Gould. Robert Mitchum. Dick Powell. Danny Glover. James Caan. Many great actors have put their unique spin on the role of Raymond Chandler’s classic sleuth, Phillip Marlowe. Then there’s Tomáš Hanák in Mazaný Filip, who looks about as enthusiastic in the part as a PE teacher who’s been browbeaten by his wife into taking part in a murder mystery LARP, when he could be away on a weekend jolly with his rugby team mates instead.

Starting off by criticizing Hanák’s awkward performance is a bit like standing in front of your house after it’s been flattened by a tornado, and worrying that it’s been ages since you last mowed the lawn. It is maybe the least of the problems with this painfully weak detective spoof, which are so wide-ranging and catastrophic that it’s tough to know where to begin. So it might as well be with the lead…

The plot of Mazaný Filip is a mish-mash of Chandler-esque story beats. Hanák plays Marlowe, a world-weary detective who spends time between cases peering out through the venetian blinds in his office, or taking generous slugs from the bottle of liquor that he keeps in his filing cabinet. He’s approached by a character who calls himself “Charlie Brown” (Pavel Liska in an almost unwatchably bizarre performance, which is still not the worst acting in this movie) to find his twin brother.

I kind of phased out of the plot after that, as I was constantly distracted by another mortifyingly unfunny joke or crass visual pun. Yet the plot was so generic that even if I zoned out for five or ten minutes, I still knew roughly where I was in the story when I tuned back in. Suffice to say it follows the usual twists and turns of detective noir, featuring all the expected character stereotypes – the villains, the crime bosses, the goons, the violent cops, etc, etc. And then of course there’s the dame, because there’s one in every story…

Vilma Cibulková plays Vilma, the film’s femme fatale. Her performance might actually be the best in the film, but she seems totally miscast. A femme fatale’s look is intrinsic to her purpose in detective noir. She’s bad news and the protagonist usually knows it, but she’s so alluring that he can’t help get involved anyway. Cibulková seems around 10-15 years too old for the role. It’s like the casting director went out to hire a Lana Turner impersonator, but the impersonator was busy – so they hired the Lana Turner impersonator’s mum instead. She just looks uncanny.

I knew that I was going to have problems with Mazaný Filip from the moment I realized that it was a “parody” of detective films. I still couldn’t prepare myself for how bad it would be – the spoof comedy is long past its heyday of Young Frankenstein or Airplane, and this exists somewhere down in the subgenre’s bilges with abominations like Fifty Shades of Black and Epic Movie.

The visual puns are so lame, usually relying on naff anachronistic movie references in lieu of real jokes. Take the opening scene – the caption tells us that we’re in Los Angeles, 1937, and in the night sky above the city a bat flutters. Momentarily it flies in front of the full moon, creating the Bat Signal. That’s it, that’s the joke – hey guys, recognize this pop culture reference? Get it? Funny, huh?

Not really. There’s a whole bunch of these inflection-free movie references scattered throughout the film. Without paying too much attention I picked up on nods to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marathon Man, Batman, and The Matrix. There’s a bullet time gag, which was also parodied in Scary Movie. It kind of worked in Scary Movie, because Scary Movie is set in the same era that The Matrix was released. Every time one of these references appeared on the screen, it pulled me further out of the film.

Here’s why. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant interacts with various cartoon characters. It’s absurd, silly and bordering on the surreal, but it works because the film adheres to an internal logic – the Toons are from the same era as the genre the film is paying homage to, so it makes sense.

Now, if Zemeckis had chosen to throw in He-Man, Skeletor and a few Thundercats as well, just because they were popular around the time the film was released, he would be betraying the film world he’s created. Just chucking in random movie references for the sake of a gag pisses away any sense of congruity.

It wouldn’t be so bad if director and screenwriter Václav Marhoul could settle on a consistent tone. The story line is far too serious and moribund to support ZAZ-style sight gags, and the visual puns don’t come frequently enough to enliven the pedestrian pacing of the plot. Scenes drag on ponderously, seemingly long after the plot point or  joke has been delivered. The movie is a shade under 100 minutes long – a more rigorous edit could’ve made it zip along better without really losing anything important.

Several of my Czech friends actually like Mazaný Filip, and they reliably inform me that the verbal wordplay is lost in translation. I was aware that the subtitles on my copy were pretty wobbly, so I can totally buy that. However, that doesn’t excuse the limp pacing, unimaginative mystery, am-dram level acting, appalling racial stereotypes (including some of the worst blackface I’ve ever seen), and total lack of understanding of the genre it is supposed to be spoofing. It would be offensive if it wasn’t so boring – in short, Mazaný Filip puts the “sleep” into The Big Sleep

 

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