Let’s take a moment to reflect on the unlikely career path of Bob Odenkirk. Twenty years ago he was hot off of running Mr. Show, the best sketch comedy show of the ‘90s, and, depending on how heated an argument you want to have, the best comedy of that decade in general. When his directorial career lost steam after Let’s Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon did, let’s just say, “not so well,” the last place we expected him to turn up was as a key supporting player on a brutal and iconic drama series.
And yet now, when Joe Television thinks of Odenkirk, they’re thinking of Saul Goodman, especially now that he’s the star of his own exceptional spin-off. At times, I’m reminded of Bill Murray, another comedian from Chicago who found a second career as a meatier character actor. But with Murray I always got the sense that he just got bored and wanted to do something else. The stakes have always been pretty low for Bill Murray. It never felt that way for Odenkirk, who has spoken about the extreme disappointment he felt in the mid-2000s as the directing thing appeared not to be working out.
That’s partly why it’s so satisfying to watch Girlfriend’s Day, a Valentine’s Day film from Netflix that continues Odenkirk’s journey of being able to carry a story like this by himself (as if Better Call Saul wasn’t proof enough). If nothing else, Odenkirk (also credited as co-writer and producer) is fantastic in the lead role here, and those who have followed his career for a while will just be delighted that he’s used his re-found fame to make something so interesting.
The skeletal structure of Girlfriend’s Day may seem familiar, because it is. Odenkirk plays Ray, a romantic greeting card writer who’s down on his luck. His wife left him. His boss (a fun supporting turn from Girls’ Alex Karpovsky, though it’s strange to hear him calling someone else “Ray”) just fired him, and his landlord is hammering on the door for the rent. The quirkiness of the greeting card profession doesn’t really shift the movie away from your standard indie film misanthropic tweeness, at least not initially.
But it’s all in the details, and that’s where Girlfriend’s Day goes right where so many films of its kind go wrong. Beyond Odenkirk’s excellent and specific performance, director Michael Stephenson (Best Worst Movie) crafts Girlfriend’s Day with an eerie precision: Odenkirk side-lit as he attempts to write at his desk; the smog-filled night sky above the city; Ray’s ex-wife’s house framing him with overwhelming whiteness (literally). Stephenson masterfully creates moments that communicate, very clearly, that something is wrong here. By the time, early on in the film, that Ray dreams his wife is having sex with a giant owl, we are convinced this movie will be an ordinary trip down indie film lane.
For indeed, soon after he is fired, the “Bill Shakespeare” of romance cards is approached by his old boss to create a card for something called “Girlfriend’s Day,” under the table. It’s not long before we discover why: the governor has announced the new holiday and is holding a contest to see who can come up with the best card. The catch? You can only enter as either an amateur or an out-of-work professional. Ray takes the job, but is quickly sucked in to a complex conspiracy involving a murdered ex-colleague, a detective, Stacy Keach, some reformed skinheads, and a too-perfect love interest (Amber Tamblyn).
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because when the left turns start coming, they come hard and quick. When Girlfriend’s Day finally gets going, it is extremely bizarre, and thoroughly refreshing because of it. That said, it goes quickly. Girlfriend’s Day’s brevity is appreciated, but at seventy minutes it sometimes feels like it’s rushing through information, especially when the twists and turns start coming.
But by the time it’s all over, you’re left with the same giddiness you feel after reading a Daniel Clowes comic or a Jonathan Ames story. You’ve watched something new and exciting and different, and you’ve somehow seen the sweet side of Bumfights. That alone makes Girlfriend’s Day worth your while.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.