What are the essentials for wooing your significant other on Valentine’s Day? Some roses, maybe a bottle of iced champagne and a dash of a far-reaching conspiracy that just might get you killed over sensitive information.
That’s the general balls-to-the-wall premise of “Girlfriend’s Day,” another Netflix movie that gets everything right, except the execution. With its release timed perfectly with the onset of Valentine’s Day earlier this week, the film is like the hardboiled and heartbroken fever dream of a recently divorced Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler who has just told his lady that yes, those jeans do indeed make her look fat.
“Girlfriend’s Day” takes place in some kind of strange alternate universe where greeting card writers are treated like celebrities — more accurately, they are the celebrities. Forget the Hollywood glamor of acting and producing; penning the next greatest “Get Well Soon” card is where it’s at! And it’s in the heart of a mostly sunless Tinseltown (or Greetingtown, I should say) that we meet Ray Wentworth (Bob Odenkirk) who was once the best romance card writer in the business. Ironically he hates holidays and is strictly a writer of love-related cards or, as he puts it, “I don’t have time for that other sh–.”
Like all great noir protagonists, Ray’s a textbook cynic, jaded by a divorce that drove his wife into the arms of a cartoonist whose claim to fame is a character known as Optimistic Owl — interestingly, the other man is played by an owlish Andy Richter. In short, Wentworth has lost the ability to capture love in just a few words, reduced to reliving the good old days in the break room of the greeting card company he works for, AAAAA, with a ragtag group of amateurs played by — and I kid you not — Flo from the Progressive commercials and Ryan McPoyle from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
When the California governor announces the movie’s eponymous new holiday to help give the greeting card industry “a boost,” Ray, now fired and spending his days watching homeless people fight on TV, is hired by his old boss to write one more card for the newly-christened occasion.
What ensues is like J.J. Gittes browsing the greeting card aisle in a pharmacy greeting as Ray gets himself caught up in a morally dubious meshwork of murder, MacGuffins, lies, femme fatales and crooked cops set to the mainstay sound of horns and high hats. Like I said, all the pieces are in place, if only someone had really cared to move them around anywhere.
The movie does pull off a few highlights of dark and deadpan humor, however: Odenkirk gets off a few Bogarty quips to a corrupt police officer — even if he can’t match the sarcastic wit of ol’ Humphrey — and comes into contact with a pair of neo-Nazis who are now reformed because hating a whole race of folks is “an awful lot of work.”
What should have been a riotous and wildly offbeat comedic neo-noir (like last summer’s “The Nice Guys”), is a disappointingly bland venture from director Michael Stephenson. Not really a surprise coming from a filmmaker whose most glamorous role was in one of the worst movies ever made, “Troll 2.”
The film can’t even commit (all the relationship puns intended here) to its final payoff that brings together Ray’s budding romance with a store clerk, Jill (Amber Tamblyn), with a titan of the greeting card industry, Robert Gundy (Stacey Kreach), who makes an excellent point about how the existence of every holiday is preceded with bloodshed. It’s a climax a little too reminiscent of “Chinatown” (with some “Maltese Falcon” sprinkled on top) and feels like it was plucked out of the leftover dime store pulp from the alley out back.
At the very least it was an hour-long distraction for anyone who was alone on Valentine’s Day this year. But hey, “The Big Sleep” was aggravatingly disappointing and misunderstood upon its initial release in 1946 and is now heralded as a classic masterpiece of the genre, so maybe I’m just not getting it the first time around. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Odenkirk gives it his all, and, at times, “Girlfriend’s Day” does kind of feel like an episode of “Better Call Saul” without the oomph! from Vince Gilligan pulling the strings (interestingly, the movie contains three actors of “Saul” and “Breaking Bad” notoriety).
“Girlfriend’s Day” likes to think itself a high-minded indictment on the commercialization of modern holidays. “Why buy an overpriced card written by somebody else when you can just speak from the heart?” it asks. And to a certain degree, that’s true. We’ve lost sight of what some might call “holiday spirit” and instead place importance on material possessions to give to one another in order to mark the significance within the calendar year, when all we really need is each other.
But even with its truly inspired moments and message, the film resembles a lazy noir checklist. Like a Valentine’s card on Feb. 15, it rings cheap and hollow. Forget it, Jake, let’s get some reduced-price chocolate instead. It’s 70 percent off.