Jeff Garlin’s lethargic detective movie shows Netflix will buy any comedy zombie.
The first thing you might notice about director/writer/actor Jeff Garlin’s third feature, Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie, (aside from the smug self-reference in the film’s title and opening direct address) is the music. Done by Ben Folds, it’s so slinky and jazzy that it becomes a goofy sonic parody of overly hard-boiled crime tales: think noir via The Pink Panther’s Henry Mancini. It’s also almost entirely confined to the film’s opening credits, as is the film’s fun. The rest of the detective satire here is much drier, often to the point of humorlessness, even with Garlin’s grumpy bewilderment on the receiving end.
Overly-complicated schemes dreamed up by investigators, a hardass lieutenant (Amy Sedaris), and a disgruntled former cop neighbor (Eddie Pepitone) are just a handful of the familiar concepts plaguing Detective Gene Handsome (Garlin). These tropes, directed with a low energy ramble that undermines their wit, drag along. There are zingers in the slog, but it’s like finding a prize in a vat of porridge. The gags aren’t the kind that builds over a long haul, luxuriating in the awkward crescendo, but goofy one-liners that the film’s actors were seemingly instructed to build a scene around. They can talk around it for only so long before whatever payoff the joke may have once had dissipates into the scene-chewing ether. There are certainly standouts, like prolific comic actor Brad Morris delivering the aforementioned absurd police theories, but even their manic amblings can’t save a film that seems miscalculated at every angle.
For example, a scene where Japanese tourists visit a crime is as bad as the one where Japanese transit officials visit NYC in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – and that movie came out in 1974. The thinking behind this scene, in which a busload of onlookers discuss amongst themselves in Japanese whether the police think they’re stupid because they don’t speak English, has the same larger writing problem as the film itself. Simply acknowledging something doesn’t make it a joke, nor make it ok. Name-checking references like the stunt-casting of Joe Kenda (a real detective with a long-running true crime show) and walking through recognizable police procedure isn’t enough to make something entertaining, just like having subtitles for the Japanese caricatures isn’t enough to save them from their cartoonish portrayal. It’s a complete whiff on a scene-by-scene level and a larger, why-did-I-make-a-comedy-film level.
This affects the light plotting stringing the film together, each scene’s progression tortured out of the characters like a forced confession. Garlin’s investigation into the murder of his neighbor’s babysitter is a series of mostly partnerless two shots that play like half-baked cop skits. Did you notice I said the neighbor’s babysitter was murdered? If you did, you’re paying more attention than the film believes you are, considering that neither the neighbor or babysitter is enough of a character to warrant mention.
Without enough characters to play around with, the scenes stagnate. Even with his tragically-named partner, Detective Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne, whose quick delivery and horny sleaze are rare bright spots), Handsome has a hard time keeping his investigation from dozing off. It’s not an overly-complex plot. It doesn’t lose itself in a mystery aimed to destabilize and upset the audience. But it’s also never so clear-cut that it’s tense or funny. It’s dopey and lethargic in its wispy narrative simplicity, making way for jokes that simply never hit.
You might think that a film with this apparently low budget would be forced into some sort of desperate energy. Instead, its sleepy progression and boring framing (that forces its characters into describing what we can’t see) weakly compensate like aesthetic duct tape. It employs all the tricks of an unambitious first film just to get to the finish line of its hour-twenty runtime (even with an epilogue), reminding you over and over that its titular platform has recently allowed sloppy, half-assed, free-reign work to overrun its curation. Garlin has joined Adam Sandler as a Netflix-sponsored tripe auteur.