Jeff Garlin‘s comedic style is pleasant and conversational, with a tendency towards delving into the absurd. Through a curious mix of spontaneity and grounded looseness, the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star likes to keep things weird and off-kilter, yet still self-contained and approachable. It’s an odd balance, but one that worked quite well in “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” his warm, breezy, entirely charming directorial debut that proved him to be a cordial filmmaker and appealing leading man. With “Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie,” his third narrative feature, Garlin retains a little bit of that agreeable atmosphere and unburdened comedic freedom, yet as he (very) lightly dips his toes into genre filmmaking, he lacks that same high level of endearment and winning amiableness. That’s not to suggest that it’s a bad film — in fact, it’s congenial enough to not leave you miserable or, worse, disinterested. But the spark isn’t quite as hot. The movie is missing a clear motive, and it’s a little too unkempt and frivolous for its own good.
Seemingly inspired by “Columbo” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Handsome lets you know the murderer right away. It’s self-indulgent actor Talbert Bacorn (Steven Weber), which he admits straight to the camera. So what, exactly, is the mystery? One could argue that it’s Bacorn’s reasoning, yet Garlin and co-writer Andrea Seigel (“Laggies“) could truly care less about how the mystery affects the main story. It’s house dressing: for the most part, it’s something to bring the film together, as Gene Handsome (Garlin), a late period L.A. homicide detective, tries to make sense of the moderately mundane craziness that happens to him on a daily basis. Along with his partner, Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne), a sexually-charged wild card known to speak her mind, Gene deals with gruesome crime scenes and scuzzy individuals, yet he’s basically just an average guy trying to lose weight, live peacefully with his dalmatian, Candy, and, if he can find the right gal, maybe fall in love too. He can solve crimes, but he can’t solve his problems. You know the drill.
With retirement looming heavily over his head, something Lieutenant Tucker (Amy Sedaris) never fails to bring up, Handsome’s latest case is a doozy, involving a decapitated babysitter’s head and her body formed in the shape of the Star of David, yet his thoughts often drift back to his new neighbor, the lovely dental assistant Nora Vanderwheel (Christine Woods, in a performance that often calls to mind Kristen Wiig), and his growing feelings for her. Her daughter, Carys (Ava Acres), doesn’t seem to care much for him, and Nora is seemingly more interested in another, hunkier neighbor, yet she and Gene share the same dream: to live in a farmhouse, away from the chaos of the city and the annoyances of other people. Will Handsome finally settle down? Will he solve his case? For what it’s worth, ‘Handsome’ doesn’t leave you in suspense. Intentionally so, one should note. The film likes to keep things casual and mostly informal, presenting a likable relaxedness that should appeal to those Netflix viewers who don’t want anything too demanding.
Yet, where that worked wonders in Garlin’s first movie, it feels uninspired and unmotivated to its detriment with ‘Handsome.’ Garlin remains a nice, good-natured lead, while his co-stars, which also include Timm Sharp, Joe Kenda, Megan Ferguson, Eddie Pepitone, and Leah Remini, to name a handful, all seem to be enjoying themselves well enough. But the intentionally unfocused, broadly sketched storytelling method grows wearisome after the first 20-30 minutes. With no honest desire to have any real sense of momentum, it’s hard to win back your interest.
To its credit, however, ‘Handsome’ seems well-aware of itself, in the sense that it knows that it’s a Netflix original feature and that, for what it’s worth, there’s a good chance its audience might simply be tuning in-and-out amidst other activities like folding laundry or texting friends, all while the film continues playing. And perhaps that’s the best way to view this one. It’s amusing enough not to feel like a complete waste, yet it’s not consistent or persistent enough to keep your undivided interest for long. If you were to check back with it only moderately, you might find yourself more won over by its easygoing attitude. The film goes out of its way not to make the central mystery hold any intrigue or uncertainty, so it’s simply a matter of laying back and letting Garlin and his crew keep you moderately distracted from the outside world for a little over 80 minutes. It’s not much, but it’s simple.
And that’s the best and the worst thing about “Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie.” Garlin’s love of absurdity often pops up, but it’s in a calm, loose-fitting sorta way. Everything is enclosed and enveloped in a manner that practically refuses to let any suspense or unease creep into your system. There’s the ongoing suspicion that anything can happen in this world, yet it opts to keep things controlled. As a result, ‘Handsome’ is modest and mild-mannered, the type of comedy that likes to keep things content and mostly carefree. It’d be more appealing, however, if it weren’t so quick to lose steam midway through. And while ‘Handsome’ isn’t so invested in crafting a compelling whodunit, the real question is what the inclination was to make this otherwise disposable picture in the first place. [C+]