I made sure to pay attention to the credits this time. I wanted to see who’s behind this elaborate send up of the mystery-thriller genre, ingeniously infusing melodrama and murder into the world of holiday romance cards. The person’s name is Michael Stephenson. He wrote the film with Eric Hoffman (With Bob and David) and the film’s star, Bob Odenkirk, whose face looks like a clown’s without the makeup. Put another way, I finally know what to picture when someone old describes a face as a “mug”. “His old mug.”
Here, Odenkirk plays Ray, a once great card writer who’s fallen on hard times and cliche ideas. He’s hapless like Saul Goodman, but not slimy. When his manager Styvesan (a perfectly cast Alex Karpovsky) delivers the news, Ray attempts to keep in work by offering to “fold”. This offer offends both of them. “Fold? These factory machines behind you fold 300 cards a minute.” “I can do better. I’ll double it.” It’s supposed to be pathetic and it is. Karpovsky’s face is plagued with a mix of perpetual sadness and annoyance that he takes with him from role to role, and somehow makes it work.
This scene does three smart things: It puts Ray at a low point, giving him room to grow over the course of the trim hour and ten minutes, it makes us like him, and most importantly it makes us take the world of writing greeting cards seriously — or semi-seriously, and I can’t think of a better way to do this premise justice than to play everything extremely straight, with the only winks coming in costume and score.
A lot of friendly faces populate the screen, some of which you’ll only know by face, unfortunately, and not by name. There’s Amber Tamblyn (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black), Andy Richter (!!!!), David Lynch (‘s voice!!!), and last but not least, Steven Michael Quezada better known as Breaking Bad‘s Gomey!
This movie isn’t for everyone. It’s not even always for me. In moments it’s too cute, too close to the material that it satirizes, too unwieldy with where the plot goes, melodramatic to a point that’s unwarranted, and unfortunately it wears that desaturated look that so many lower budget indie-ish films wear these days, where everything looks just a little paler. Maybe it works for this movie, since it’s about a character that for the most part is down on his luck, but I’m afraid the (I hope) eventual success of Girlfriend’s Day and others like it will perpetuate this style, and we need to put it rest. Desaturation isn’t or at least shouldn’t be a shorthand for tragedy.
But I’m losing track of what I’m talking about.
This is a movie I will recommend to people if they ask me what they should watch and they’ve seen the other good stuff already on Netflix, because it’s pleasingly short, filled with great actors and interesting ideas, and a lot of subtle comedy you’re still allowed to notice the first go ’round.
Frankly, if Odenkirk had to choose between these offbeat low budget movies or continuing Better Call Saul I’d rather he choose the movies, because I think there are shades to him we have yet to see. For now, enjoy both.