Cillian Murphy Made Us Swoon With This Rare Rom-Com Performance

The Big Picture

  • Cillian Murphy showcases his comedic skills in Watching the Detectives, a romantic comedy that highlights his ability to play quirky characters.
  • The film explores the obsession and control that can come with being a film buff, as Murphy’s character is confronted by a mysterious woman who ignores his advice and disrupts his life.
  • Murphy’s chemistry with Lucy Liu is a standout, as their characters evolve and go through comedic and heartfelt moments together, adding depth to the film’s story.

Cillian Murphy is an actor who doesn’t tend to be associated with the comedy category very often. The Irish star made a name for himself thanks to his gripping dramatic work in Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and solidified his reputation worldwide with his stone-cold performances in BBC’s Peaky Blinders and the largely humorless (but exceptional) Christopher Nolan films he’s appeared in. He may have cemented his status as a somber leading man with his Oscar-nominated role as the titular character in Oppenheimer, but that doesn’t mean that Murphy’s never gone over to the lighter, more comedic side of cinema. In fact, Murphy gave one of his best performances to date alongside Lucy Liu in the romantic comedy Watching the Detectives. In playing a video store clerk who spends a little too much time watching old noir films, Murphy was able to capture the essence of the original “Letterboxd” film bro, in an era well before the rise of social media.

Watching the Detectives Movie Poster

Watching the Detectives

A film noir buff to the extreme is given a taste of his own medicine and has his life turned upside down by a kooky femme fatale with a big adventure in mind. Sometimes love is stranger than fiction.

Release Date
September 11, 2008

Paul Soter

Paul Soter

Cillian Murphy Is a Great Romantic Lead in ‘Watching the Detectives’

Watching the Detectives stars Murphy as Neil, the quirky owner of the niche video rental store Gumshoe Video. Neil prides himself on his store’s range of titles, his knowledge of both classical and rare noir films, and, of course, his exceptional taste. Neil is the type of film fan who defines himself based on his opinions and tends to judge people based on which classics they have or haven’t seen. He views his subjective feelings about films as definitive; no one can argue with him when he says that Casino is just “Martin Scorsese’s lesser version of Goodfellas,” or that a video store has no merit if the owner hasn’t seen both versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Murphy perfectly captures Neil’s personality but never becomes so hyper-fixated that his performance becomes grating. It’s a masterful work of comedy acting from someone who is best known for playing characters who don’t tend to smile often.

While the notion of renting movies from a physical location is sadly a thing of the past, Watching the Detectives features a personality type that tends to dominate “Film Twitter” today. Murphy does a great job at playing a character who is willing to fight tooth and nail over the twist in Citizen Kane, but can’t bring himself to have a normal conversation with his girlfriend, Denise (Heather Burns). When Neil is faced with the real responsibilities of adulthood, he can’t help but resort to playing childish games and dodging critical questions about his future. When Denise agrees to meet him for a date so that she can ensure that he “gets his s**t together,” he preempts their encounter by paying a waiter to spill water on her lap before promptly terminating their relationship altogether. Murphy has a childish nature in Watching The Detectives that is almost completely absent from his other work.

Neil’s life revolves around having control. The Gumshoe Video is essentially a shrine to his interests, and his employees, Jonathan (Jason Sudeikis), Andy (Josh Pais), and Buddy (Michael Yurchak), are forced to comply with even the strictest of his commands. However, this all changes when the mysterious woman, Violet (Lucy Liu), enters his shop and blatantly ignores his advice. Her rudeness matches his, but for once, Neil isn’t able to tell her what to do. It’s rather hilarious to see Murphy react as Neil’s opinions are ignored and his questions unanswered. He’s used to being the expert in every discussion, and he’s forced to converse with someone who simply doesn’t care.

Neil Is Unlike Any Other Cillian Murphy Character

Cillian Murphy as Neil in Watching the Detectives
Image Via Peace Arch Films

Watching the Detectives, as its title suggests, is deeply rooted in the noir genre that Neil is so obsessed with. The film even opens with a cheesy advertisement that Neil has put together for the store in which he plays a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective in the midst of a dark alley, in what is clearly an homage to Phillip Marlowe or Frank McCloud. Neil’s childish nature comes out in the way he interacts with everyone he encounters, as he imagines them as characters in a complex noir that exists solely in his head. He’s clearly just a child playing pretend, but Murphy’s sheepish nature prevents Neil’s behavior from becoming toxic; he’s more annoying than aggressive. Watching the Detectives makes it very clear that Neil is always the butt of the joke when his date with Violet ends up being more than he bargained for.

Violet is just as childish as Neil is, but the film keeps her backstory closed off so that she appears like a mysterious enigma in Neil’s life. It’s easy to see how her behavior could be perceived as irritating from the start from any other character’s point-of-view, but for Neil, she feels like a larger-than-life character from one of the noirs that he loves. Liu does a great job at avoiding being the “manic pixie dream girl,” and she has a way of looking unbothered while facing potential danger that is simply hilarious. Violet always seems to disappear whenever the authorities show up, allowing her to avoid being caught in a situation that she can’t manipulate.


How Did Cillian Murphy Get the Role of Oppenheimer?

Director Christopher Nolan traveled all the way to Dublin to hand Murphy a physical copy of the Oppenheimer script.

For once in his life, Neil has to deal with someone who is playing the same sort of ridiculous games that he is. Violet is obsessed with practical jokes, but her concept of a “prank” is a little more elaborate than Neil’s attempt to spill something on Denise. Her pranks involve paying various people to act out different scenarios that are traumatic in one way or another. In one of the funniest sequences in the film, Neil is pinned down by a mysterious man (Mark Harelik) hired by Violet to pretend to be an intimidating detective straight out of Key Largo. Violet is just taking Neil’s game to another level, and for once, he has to get a taste of his own medicine.

Cillian Murphy and Lucy Liu Have Great Chemistry

Capturing the persona of such a specific type of film fan is an achievement in its own right, but what makes Liu and Murphy’s work such a standout is how they show their characters’ evolution. Neil’s decision to end things with Violet is spurred by his inability to control things; it’s like he’s a young child who gets mad when his toys aren’t working. The promptness of his decision quickly makes him aware that he’s made the wrong choice. In a hilarious comedy sequence, Murphy can’t stop sobbing as Neil goes through the motions of his daily routine. Judging by Violet’s surprisingly earnest emotional breakdown, she feels the same way.

It’s during Violet’s brief absence that the film seems to lose its sense of momentum. Liu adds so much physical humor and rapid-fire one-liners that a story without her (much like Neil’s life) feels more boring without her in it. It would be one thing if Liu’s performance was only a comedic one, but she actually provides the most heartfelt scene in the story when she unexpectedly confronts Neil. Seeing Violet earnestly admit her flaws (however silly they may seem) serves as a great piece of acting on Liu’s part that makes the quirky film more than just a parody of popular sleuth flicks.

Watching the Detectives may be the type of independent rom-com that is destined to live on free streaming services like Tubi or Freevee forever, but it deserves to be ranked highly when looking back at both Liu’s and Murphy’s careers, particularly as such a rare comedic feat for Murphy. While passing references to physical media, video rentals, and the popular culture of 2007 may be a bit dated, the film’s commentary on the nature of film discourse is more relevant than ever.

Watching the Detectives is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S.


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