In Which We Pray At Length For Max Landis

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A Max Landis Joint

by ETHAN PETERSON

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
creator Max Landis
BBC America/Netflix

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-9-43-35-amIf you need to save the most scattered, implausible story with a completely awkward tone, there is only one thing for it: hire Elijah Wood. It is a damn shame that Wood was born Frodo-sized, he should have been Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson all rolled into one. Looking back on it, Wood was the only thing that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy even tolerably watchable. His FX series Wilfred contained zero jokes and he carried that to a few seasons. Elijah’s facial expressions are absolutely second-to-none; he always seems genuine and present in the moment, and he only gets more appealing to both sexes as he ages. He is like a time capsule in himself.

Creator Max Landis finally took time from his busy schedule appearing on one billion of his friends’ podcasts to write something. In this case, it is an adaptation of a Douglas Adams “novel”, co-produced by Netflix and the BBC. (All episodes come to Netflix in December.) Landis’ recent screen efforts have been something of a mixed bag, but his chatty dialogue fares much better on television. Max has a tic where he constantly forces his characters to repeat each other’s words. This gets kind of annoying in most contexts, but in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency what is happening is usually so random and distracted from itself in general that it helps to hear it twice.

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Like a lot of Adams’ work, the plot itself is just a wacky bunch of skits and ironies that exist to set up various punchlines. Landis has smartly reduced that garbage to one conflicted relationship; that of Todd (Elijah Wood) to his new British friend Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett). When the series begins, we find Todd working as a bellboy in a fancy hotel. He happens upon the scene of several murders that appear to be the result of an animal attack, and becomes a person of interest in Gently’s holistic investigation.

Landis’ instinctive sense for how a scene should visually unfold pairs nicely with the direction of Dean Parisot, the man who helped turn 1999’s hilarious Galaxy Quest into such a sensational comedy. When Wood isn’t onscreen, the narrative suffers greatly, but Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency deserves credit for not just dropping in token characters of color but instead giving specific motivations and backgrounds for all the performers in the ensemble. It is just that there is so many of them: Fiona Dourif plays a disturbed assassin with Mpho Koaho as her frightened sidekick, Hannah Marks is Todd’s ill sister, Richard Schiff, Dustin Milligan, Miguel Sandoval are agents of the law.

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Landis has spent the time since writing the box office bomb Victor Frankenstein and his direct-to-video L.A. story Me Him Her giving detailed recapitulations of all the pitch meetings he has had in Hollywood since Barack Obama took office. He loves being on a podcast more than anyone: even Jim Norton. In these interviews, Landis seems generally perplexed at why he was not given the reins to Ghostbusters and other major franchises. Since his comedies have not generally been all that funny, it is no surprise that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is less amusing than generally dark and noir-ish.

Landis’ first, and some cynical persons would say only, success in the industry came with the 2012 smash Chronicle. Despite its substantial financial earnings, no one seemed all that interested in a sequel. Chronicle’s tortured handcam direction was a bit hackeyed, but it definitely worked for the compelling story about three friends who can’t handle their burgeoning powers. Landis is at his best when he takes familiar genres into darker places than you expect. As a writer, he has no real fear of going too far, and honestly his version of Ghostbusters (I believe he took credit for the idea of an all-female cast as well at one point) was substantially better than what Paul Feig produced.

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This should be promising for future episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. A straight adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel would be something of a disaster – Adams can never resist explaining a mystery that he has created mere moments earlier, and his plots are usually hit-or-miss. Despite the fact that the titular character is something of a cipher, there is a lot more here to explore. Watching Wood rub abrasively up against a universe that seems completely dead set against him surviving is enough in itself to keep us watching.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is evidence enough of Max Landis’ mercurial talent, but it is also emblematic of his inability to connect with audiences at times. He grew up in Hollywood and it is the only world he knows. As a result, his wide imagination is so polished, so ready for the screen that it sometimes comes off as too overly planned and determined. He really needs to hit up a retreat in Napa and decide what actually is personal to him. The man is just all business.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

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