Is this Bad Movie Week at all the big streaming platforms? We haven’t checked in with Prime Video or HBO Max yet, but after struggling through Hulu’s Deep Water a few days ago we now find ourselves faced with this week’s soon-to-be-forgotten Netflix offering, Windfall.
Windfall was directed by Charlie McDowell, who gave us the interesting, quirky, and eerie The One I Love a few years back and the numbingly dull The Discovery after that. Windfall — which needed four writers to come up with the story and screenplay for this 86-minute affair, including McDowell himself and Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker — lands somewhere between the two, but unfortunately closer to The Discovery territory in its blandness and lack of energy.
The film begins with Jason Segel — playing against type for McDowell for the second time after also starring in The Discovery — as a disheveled, hulking man wandering around an extremely nice, remotely situated house, complete with Chinatown-like orange groves in the backyard and expensive-looking art on the walls and end tables.
He’s obviously not supposed to be there, which is confirmed by the arrival of the house’s owners, a couple played by Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog) and Lily Collins (Emily in Paris). None of the characters are ever named: in the closing credits, Segel is listed as Nobody, while Plemons and Collins are CEO and Wife respectively. That’s a problem right there, which we’ll get to in a bit.
After they catch Segel ransacking their home, Plemons and Collins are quickly threatened into submission by him as Plemons tries to negotiate their safety. It’s clear that he and Collins are extremely wealthy, seeing as they have at least $5,000 and a Rolex watch just lying around the house.
At first that’s enough for Segel, but after his first attempt to leave is caught on a security camera and he in turn catches the couple as they’re fleeing the property, he returns to demand more — half a million dollars, in fact, which Plemons dutifully asks his assistant over Skype to have delivered to the house (he lies that it’s for another “Debbie,” implying a woman that Plemons apparently needs to pay off to get out of his life).
The issue is that it will take 24 hours for the money to get collected and delivered, which means that Segel, Collins, and an increasingly manic Plemons needs to spend a whole day together in the house. Cue up what the viewer expects to be the obligatory character moments, confessions, and revelations that always seem to happen in these kinds of pressure cooker circumstances.
And indeed, that’s what we get — sort of. Segel’s motivation is never revealed, although it’s heavily hinted that he’s collateral damage from the invention that made Plemons his billions: an algorithm that helps companies streamline their operations and return to profitability by laying off untold numbers of employees, a process that Plemons proudly defends.
While Segel, Plemons, and Collins all work hard here — sometimes a little too hard in Plemons’ case, after his more nuanced work in The Power of the Dog — the characters fall into the standard slots befitting their generic names: Segel is the enigmatic, possibly dangerous stranger who sets things in motion, Plemons is a ruthless CEO who detests “freeloaders” and wants “what’s fucking mine,” while Collins is the seemingly perfect wife who harbors hidden regrets and resentments.
Windfall might have been more interesting if the characters had been written against type, with Segel perhaps discovering that Plemons is not the hard-hearted, smug, possessive bastard that he seems to be (a wish he actually expresses later in the film). That would set up at least a somewhat fresher scenario and more moral complexity than what McDowell and company offer here.
All of this is played out in a lovely Ojai, California setting with ominous music out of a 1940s noir playing in the background. This clashes with the film’s inconsistent tone, which finds it veering from near-comedic (Segel is somewhat inept as a thief and kidnapper) to satirical to horrific, the latter coming to the fore with one late, jarringly out-of-place scene of gore.
What it all lacks, after the intriguing first act setup, is suspense, true tension, and any real insight into who these people are. Leaving the characters unnamed is confirmation that Windfall never really achieves anything new in terms of theme or profundity, leaving us with a simple “money makes people bad and leads to terrible choices” lesson.
The result is a film that quickly fades from memory, another lethargic time-waster to roll out on the endless Netflix assembly line as background noise while one does chores or hits the exercise bike. What’s new on HBO Max?
Windfall is streaming now on Netflix.