“I hate holidays.”
Greeting cards are a serious business in Michael Stephenson’s Girlfriend’s Day. Set in a world where get-well-soon and Christmas cards are regarded as high art, and the people who pen these sentimental greetings are treated like literary rock stars, Girlfriend’s Day sets up a quirky premise and forgets to go anywhere with it. Pity, since the film is loaded with a smorgasbord of talented folks and headlined by Bob Odenkirk, who also co-wrote the script.
Odenkirk is Ray, a greeting card writer on the skids. Ray used to be one of the best in the biz, but he hasn’t written anything he’s been happy with in three years — not since his wife (June Diane Raphael) left him for a greeting card hack (Andy Richter). Ray goes into a tailspin after getting sacked from his job and fills his days with alcohol and Bumfights DVDs. Then two things happen simultaneously — the governor declares a new holiday — Girlfriend’s Day — to boost the greeting card industry, and Ray finds himself smitten with Jill (Amber Tamblyn), a quirky young woman who happens to be a fan of Ray’s work.
Girlfriend’s Day quickly morphs into a Chinatown-style noir, with Ray getting mixed up in the murder of another greeting card writer (Larry Fessenden) all while trying to get his greeting card groove back. There’s plenty here to jumpstart a clever, quirky dark comedy, but Girlfriend’s Day is so brief and slight that you never grow accustomed to things. It’s impossible to become invested in any of this, and the parade of character actors that get briefly trotted out — Natasha Lyonne, Stacy Keach, Derek Waters, Ed Begley Jr., Rich Sommer — is more distracting than probably intended.
There are cute little sight-gags scattered through the film — Ray writes with a copy of something called The Elements of Sentiment on his desk instead of The Elements of Style — but we never truly get a feel for this weird world the film is trying to create. The end result is something that plays like the pilot for a show that never got picked up to series: perhaps we’d learn more about all this if the story had just continued on.
What keeps Girlfriend’s Day afloat is Odenkirk’s committed, never-winking performance. Odenkirk plays Ray in the tradition of any world-weary gumshoe, full of self-deprecation and a general displeasure with the world. He sells every silly moment of the story, and it’s difficult not to wish he had played this character in a better project.
Girlfriend’s Day is a curious project for Netflix: it’s unlikely to generate the buzz of their TV shows, and it’s not even close to a prestige piece. It’s somewhat comforting to know the streaming giant is willing to take a chance on offbeat material such as this, but it’s puzzling trying to figure out just who this is for. There are moments when Girlfriend’s Day gleefully borders on absurdism, and had the film committed fully to this and gone all the way into the weirdo-zone, it might be truly special. But for all its quirks and occasional bursts of violence, the film is curiously flat and void of personality. It’s like a greeting card in that way, I suppose.