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Why detective films don’t get made anymore

“Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie” is a clear failure.

Actors+Natasha+Lyonne+and+Jeff+Garlin+co-star+in+the+Netflix+original+mystery+movie+%E2%80%9CHandsome.%E2%80%9D
Actors Natasha Lyonne and Jeff Garlin co-star in the Netflix original mystery movie “Handsome.”

Actors Natasha Lyonne and Jeff Garlin co-star in the Netflix original mystery movie “Handsome.”

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Actors Natasha Lyonne and Jeff Garlin co-star in the Netflix original mystery movie “Handsome.”

Jason Enns, Arts & Life Editor

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From William Powell in the classic 1930s “Thin Man” series, to Humphrey Bogart in films like “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon,” to more recent examples of Brad Pitt in “Se7en” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Zodiac,” the leading men in murder mysteries are always empirically handsome detectives.

This one constant was finally disrupted in “Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie,” where detective Gene Handsome is played by Jeff Garlin — whose most recent claim to fame is from his TV spot on ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” where he plays the distant, sofa-loving matriarch, Murray Goldberg.

As you might have guessed from the ironic title, the film isn’t a straightforward murder mystery, but a satire. Or at least, it straddles the line of satire.

My review in short would be that “Handsome,” directed by Garlin, just isn’t funny enough to keep the audience invested. After starting film by introducing us to a police force with a “Reno 911” level of professionality, I was expecting many more hijinks along the way than what was delivered.

There is no denying that the film is absurd. As Handsome goes from site to site conducting interviews and uncovering new clues, I’m consciously aware that the dialogue in the movie is not the way people talk in the real world; at times it even seems to subtly pierce the fourth wall. But, therein lies the greatest flaw with this film, the absurdity, the fourth wall breaks and especially the satire are all too subtle.

The comparison that kept begging to get made for me was with a little-known 2014 film called “Inherent Vice,” in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a doped-up L.A. private investigator in the ‘70s. This too was a film that was highly absurd in the settings and character interaction. However, “Inherent Vice” had a cast of A-list stars including Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and many more, and though it was clearly a nontraditional film, it never transcended the line into satire. In that intriguing film, the few big laughs that come along the way come as pleasant surprises.

“Handsome” stars actors known for their work in slapstick comedies and sitcoms, including Garlin and Natasha Lyonne, and assures audiences early on that it is indeed a satire, only to under-deliver on that promise.

There is one redeeming factor to this film, though, the use of a now-rare storytelling method. Under “genres” it is listed as comedy — sorry, that misses the mark — and mystery, a film genre that seems all but lost.

The murder mystery was a once-prominent film genre, the premise for most of Alfred Hitchcock’s notable work, but it seems to have completely transitioned into the television sector. In fact, after you get through every branch of “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS,” and begin sifting through your “Bones,” “Castle” and “The Mentalist”-type shows, there’s not much left. Nowadays if a show neatly wraps up a new crime in every hour-long time slot it can air on primetime network television.

Well, I miss the days when detectives were welcome protagonists in movies, when the web of clues could be convoluted and interesting enough to keep an audience invested for a full-length feature film.

According to Google searches the last notable detective movie released in the U.S. was “Zodiac” in 2007, and it might just be because I was 14 when I saw it, but the appeal of that film was lost on me. “Prisoners” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” also come up, but I consider those both to be be more tales of vengeance rather than detective work. This seems to be true now for all mysteries, there needs to be a greater element at play to keep the audience invested.

Whether it’s “Se7en,” “Memento,” or “The Usual Suspects” it’s not enough anymore for the detective just to reveal how he’s cracked the case in a room full of suspects; nope, there either has to be a huge twist or a head in a box.

“Handsome” was no different in that its tool to keep audiences invested was satire, the only problem was — there wasn’t nearly enough. So, though I was glad just to see the mystery style of storytelling tackled in this film, it straddled the line in such careful balance that the film no longer worked. If the scale could have just tipped in favor of either comedy or drama, the film might have gained the traction needed to succeed.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Why detective films don’t get made anymore”

  1. Anonymous on May 22nd, 2017 6:28 am

    Matriarchs are women.

    [Reply]

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