Bob Odenkirk Returns to Comedy in His Version of ‘Chinatown’

Odenkirk tells us: “It’s ‘The Incredible Mr. Limpet’ meets ‘Blood Simple’

Netflix/FSR Illustration

“I think other people liked Saul more than I did,” Bob Odenkirk told the A.V. Club shortly before Better Call Saul hit the airwaves. Which made sense: every profile of the former cult-comedy-star-turned-symbol for the seedy legal system labors to depict him as the kind of man whose advice for young children would not be “carpe diem, okay?” Which might be why his biggest project post-Saul Goodman isn’t about nefarious types trying to game a system. On Girlfriend’s Day, which hits Netflix this Valentine’s Day, he’s a writer. Check out an exclusive clip:

Ray Wentworth writes greeting cards, a pursuit that Odenkirk’s script (co-written with Phil Zlotorynski and Mr. Show-alum, Eric Hoffman) elevates to the esteem of poetry: Madsen (Echo Kellum), a fellow scribe, is shown practicing experimental greetings at an open mike. The invention of a new holiday kicks off the plot: the titular Girlfriend’s Day offers Ray a chance for redemption, who’s lost both his spark after a divorce and his job, having been fired by a greeting card foreman played by Alex Karpovsky, famous for playing a character named Ray elsewhere. Other well-cast friends of Odenkirk bring pressure: his landlord (fellow Breaking Bad fan-favorite, Steven Michael Quezada) wants the rent and Jill (Amber Tamblyn, married to Odenkirk’s Mr. Show co-star, David Cross) brings the promise of love. As does a dead body.

Ray (Bob Odenkirk) and Styvesan (Alex Karpovsky) overlook the grave of a mysterious killed scribe. His widow (Natasha Lyonne) grieves.

Like another movie large on the public consciousness right now, Girlfriend’s Day is an LA movie, filmed by Michael Stephenson – a documentarian who starred in Troll 2 as a child and, more recently, filmed a documentary on very intense Halloween decorations. Girlfriend’s Day is his first narrative feature, but clocks in at little over an hour, a choice that Odenkirk told Esquire was a tribute to Poverty Row B-movie noirs that had to be short enough to allow for the feature-lengths that followed. But for Netflix the length is perfect, and it is one of the first pieces of original content that utilizes the malleability of streaming to break out of the confines of television and cinema, mediums whose demarcation streaming has long since made obsolete.

He told me that is was also a triumph of good editing, as the script has been sitting around for almost sixteen years.

“Can I ask you a question?,” Odenkirk interjected in a middle of our conversation; Netflix’s PR firm had him and Stephenson fielding phone calls on the way to LA, fresh from shooting another season of Better Call Saul in the American Southwest, a show whose developments he remains tight-lipped about. “Did you enjoy the film?”

It was a fair question: I had forgotten to mention that I did, indeed, enjoy the movie’s surreal and quirky LA, I was not lost adrift among the characters and their absurdities. I would like to think of myself as someone who got Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s own quirky and weird version of tinsel town. Lynch is among those Odenkirk’s has brought along: he narrates us into the movie’s bizarre greeting card industry. Girlfriend’s Day has its own Lynchian moments. At one point Ray daydreams discovering his ex-wife copulating with an owl, only slightly out-of-the-ordinary in a world where one can lose wives to fellow greeting card writers with trade names like the Optimistic Owl (Andy Richter).

He was relieved to find out that I had enjoyed it. He expressed some anxiety that the movie would strike audiences the wrong way, as it seemed more “oddball” than traditional Valentine’s Day fare. He compared it to the Coen Brothers’ debut – Blood Simple – and Arthur Lubin’s fishy (literally) comic war movie The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Its title made me think of the first of Garry Marshall’s run of holiday-themed and star-studded romantic comedies, while the premise put me in mind of (500) Days of Summer, the rom-com about people who write for an LA greeting card company. None of these movies, however, were blood-streaked homages to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, nor did they feature a minor character called Shitfoot (Grady Lee Richmond), who Ray watches in the bum fights that dominate daytime television in Odenkirk’s world. “It’s a completely unrealistic film and teaches your family the lessons of nothing,” he proudly proclaimed, “It will make you happy, hopefully.”

I was interested in Stephenson’s choice to depict an LA at odds with Oscar bait movies like La La Land. Girlfriend’s Day’s final shot, for instance, features a homeless man rummaging in the trash. Both testified this to be the ‘real LA.’

“Everybody knows the postcard LA, everybody knows the romantic LA. This was a fun challenge,” Stephenson told me, “let’s show an LA that’s bad, a little past its prime and…is crumbling.” He said there was something authentic and real about this less-depicted version of the city. He described the city as schizophrenic.

“You look at these bridges that are falling to pieces, right?” Stephenson had respect for the outdated architecture of the city’s outgrown suburbs. If you blur your eyes…it’s not unlike a romantic street in Paris.”

Besides, Odenkirk interrupted. “We had to shoot it in LA because it’s a noir story.” True to the spirit of a genre now dominated by sprawling mysteries like Inherent Vice and Nocturnal Animals, stewy connections abound, characters with hidden motivations that are left to the diligent viewer to find. “If you sat down and watched the movie eight times, the backstory would become clear to you,” Odenkrik emphasized. LA also helped keep production and travel costs down, “One thing we wanted in the movie was all our friends.”

Some of Bob Odenkirk’s friends, who play fellow greeting card writers, from left to right: Radek Lord, Nate Mooney, Stephanie Courtney and Echo Kellum

Girlfriend’s Day had always been a fan’s reworking of Chinatown. Its dead body is found floating in one of the city’s mysterious ravines. Things can be traced to the house of a shady industrialist, played by Stacy Keach. But it’s also a movie about the anxieties of being a creative for as long as someone like Bob Odenkirk has been in the game. Stephenson particularly described Ray as a “flawed-has been artist.” But Ray is more like the Saul Goodman that Odenkirk has been steering us to on Better Call Saul than the one cutting moral corners behind a faked U.S. Constitution in Breaking Bad. Early in the movie, he exclaims that he wants to write cards with “no song chips, no glitter, just the truth.” And for a movie that might slide into the nebulous genre of the artist, struggling, there is little space in its sixty-five minutes for existential fluff.

“We cut everything that didn’t rock the house for us,” Odenkirk told me. Its sixteen-year gestation period almost feels like the work of a perfectionist: he has said, elsewhere, that the script had been rewritten a “couple hundred” times. Odenkirk, who began his career writing for Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Tenacious D, hasn’t written a feature length since Run Ronnie Run!, an early 2000s Mr. Show spin-off and, perhaps, as a sketch-comic icon, he is attached to brevity. I asked him, of course, what projects the now eminently busy television star had on his hands now. He gave me a sketch, about an incident he remembered from his college days, at SIU, a university famous at the time for its Halloween riots that were forcibly disbanded by the police sometime in the last decade. “A guy I knew stole a police car, drove it down the street and then turned the siren on and jumped out and ran into the crowd.”

He promises it will appear in his next script.

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