The Private Eye
Comedian Matt Rife takes a stab at a lead role in a feature film, but it's a messy, tonally weird affair where the private detective does very little snooping, or anything much interesting.
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There’s a long history of stand-up comedians who have gone on to become serious film actors — Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Jamie Foxx, etc. Even Jim Gaffigan, who embraces his bumpkin persona, has had stellar supporting roles in small films like “Chappaquiddick” and “Troop Zero.”
You may not have heard of Matt Rife because he’s young and broke out on Tik Tok, but he’s become a name in the last few years. He’s famed for his spicy “crowd work” where he engages with people in the audience, and also for not resembling his fellows in the stand-up comic world, where Jerry Seinfeld was considered handsome.
(Hey, glass houses and all that. Movie critics make comedians look like George Clooney.)
Rife takes a stab at a serious movie in “The Private Eye,” a very low-budget picture directed by Jack Cook, who also worked on the script with Hope Ayiyi, Rosalinda Books and Patrick Roe. It’s about the titular private detective, Mort Madison, who once broke a big case involving a string of murder/robberies at video rental stores some years back in Los Angeles. Now, he’s barely getting by and even resorts to looking for a kid’s lost dog to bring in money.
Into his crummy apartment one day strolls a very stereotypical femme fatale, Michelle (Clare Grant). She throws a wad of cash at him for a vague job involving keeping tabs on a significant other who’s been vexing her. Sparks fly between them, but Mort isn’t in a place to trust anybody or anything.
Oddly, Michelle arranges for the target of Mort’s surveillance to come visit him. Mort objects that it’s rare for the person he’s supposed to follow to know about it, let alone have a meeting first. This turns out to be David (Elliot), a chakra-embracing hippie type who also happens to be Michelle’s therapist.
It quickly becomes apparent that “The Private Eye” isn’t a typical film noir investigation story, and whatever plot exists is just the peg to hang a more existential, character-driven story upon — sort of like the old-timey short-brim fedora hat Mort wears during the first half of the movie, then seems to forget about.
Rife doesn’t have much in the way of screen presence. His Mort is just a shambolic jerk who isn’t very motivated or coherent in his thoughts. He experiences sudden violent dizzy spells that can leave him blooded. The movie’s narrator later shows up in person in the form of Edmond (Eric Roberts), an older prisoner in the jail Mort briefly winds up in. Edmond makes a lot of cryptic comments and seems to know more about Mort’s past than he does.
Mort doesn’t even own a car, relying on L.A.’s sparse bus system or borrowing a kid’s bike to get around to tail David. The truth is there is very little snooping in this detective story, or really much anything interesting that happens.
The tone shifts from scene to scene, and we’re never quite sure if Michelle hates Mort’s guts or has fallen desperately in love with him. A final act twist feels very gimmicky and cheap.
Rife has matinee idol looks but has a long way to go to develop the acting chops that previous comedians honed on their thespian journeys. And “The Private Eye” feels more like a filmmaking experiment than a coherent movie.