Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
The Netflix mystery movie "Handsome" begins by removing any possibility of mystery: Stephen Weber emerges from a swimming pool and announces, "Hello, I'm Stephen Weber. I play the murderer in this 'Handsome Mystery Movie.' Enjoy this exciting, multi-platform event." Said event is directed and co-written by Jeff Garlin, perhaps still best known for playing Larry David's manager on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Garlin also plays the main character, Gene Handsome, a Los Angeles detective who's burning off the days left before retirement when the severed head of a neighbor's babysitter ends up on the front lawn of Weber's character, former movie star Talbert Bacom, a vain twit.
Having announced in its very first scene that it isn't hung up on being a traditional mystery, "Handsome" goes on to prove that it's not all that interested in being a coherent movie, either. It's more of a loose assortment of scenes of Los Angelenos hanging out and talking that occasionally remembers to move its plot along. The detective's investigation is a pretext to set up the next scene between him and an eccentric character who might or might not have anything to do with the investigation—usually not. Meanwhile, Ben Folds' sprightly score chugs along underneath the action, its instrumentation evoking such laid-back fare as "Midnight Run" and TV's "The Rockford Files."
There's a somewhat intriguing not-quite-romantic chemistry between Handsome and the babysitter's former employer, a dental assistant named Nora (Christine Woods), and a lot of cheap jokes at the expense of Handsome's oversexed partner, Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne), who isn't above asking a suspect out on a date. There are a couple of sharp scenes between Handsome and the coroner, Lester (William Stanford Davis), and a funny bit where a bus full of tourists checking out the sites of infamous Hollywood crimes just happens to be driving by the scene of the babysitter's murder and decides to add a stop.
But much of the film's running time consists of scenes of Handsome simply going about his routine. He walks his dog—a part great Dane, part dalmatian, from appearances—and gets in an argument with a neighbor, a former detective named Durante (Eddie Pepitone), about whether some poop on Lester's lawn was her doing. Midway through the scene, Durante's wife Esta (Leah Remini) comes outside, warns against assuming that this is a good evening, then begins playing the accordion. Later in the movie there's a scene where Handsome gets some burgers from a drive-thru place and tells the fast food worker, a born-again Christian, that he's going to quit eating junk after this. The teenager congratulates him for taking a step toward becoming his "best self."
You used to see more of these kinds of independent films being made twenty years ago, when there was still a exhibition market for them. Now they've either moved to streaming services or else they do a brief run on the festival circuit and end up there. They're mainly interesting as venues where performers who are typecast for doing one thing can break loose and do something else, if only for a scene or two.
The problem with "Handsome" is that it never quite finds a groove, and it seems only halfheartedly interested in some of the different modes it's trying on for size. It doesn't entirely commit to being an anti-mystery (though there are hints early on that it'll be like the series "Colombo," where you knew who did it from the very beginning and the story was all about the investigation). It doesn't really commit to being a spoof of hardboiled crime fiction or cop movies, either, although there are enough broad characters and situations that don't land (including a few crass and dumb ones where Handsome's superior officer, played by Amy Sedaris, sexually harasses him) to make you think it's on the verge of turning into a "Police Squad!"-type parody.
The best scenes are ones that seem free of any generic obligation—where we're just observing people in their natural habitats. These scenes make me wonder if Garlin didn't miss his true calling. All of his films work a certain amount of absurd and acerbic humor into their stories, and sometimes a strained madcap quality as well, but the quieter, more realistic interactions are the ones that land. There's an extended scene towards the middle of the film where Handsome and Nora sit on a couch in Nora's house and talk about their dreams for the future that's sincere and, towards the end, wrenching. You can tell that the actors had a moment and genuinely moved each other. No joke: it reminded me of something out of a Mike Leigh film. I wouldn't mind an entire Jeff Garlin film comprised mostly of scenes like that, with occasional interludes to let Garlin lavish affection on a dog who's nearly as big as he is.