Windfall doesn’t have much depth but works quite well as a slick and playful noir trifle.
Filmmaker Charlie McDowell has established a flair for filtering the varied relationship woes of his protagonists through a sci-fi prism, as seen in his debut feature, The One I Love, and his follow-up, 2017’s The Discovery. But those looking for a similar otherworldly bent may be disappointed by his latest, the Netflix original Windfall, a sun-drenched slice of 21st century melodrama that replaces the fantastical with the familiar beats of film noir. In its early going, Windfall certainly plays a tad like his much-lauded debut, as a husband and wife suffering from obvious marital woes — credited here as CEO (Jesse Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins) — make their way to a secluded vacation home in the orange orchards of southern California. What they don’t count on is the intrusion of a robber — the appropriately credited Nobody (Jason Segel) — who is unable to escape before their arrival. What follows is a 24-hour game of mouse-and-mouse, as Nobody proves to be less of a criminal mastermind than he initially lets on, while CEO and Wife play along for reasons that seem mystifying, at best.
Windfall opens on the exterior of this gorgeous hideaway, its ostentatious patio setting the scene, as a bombastic score courtesy of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi fills the soundtrack, its lush orchestrations proving menacing one moment, jaunty the next, and calling to mind such classic noirs as Kiss Me Deadly and Double Indemnity. But aside from the early appearance of a gun, Nobody is established as such an inexperienced buffoon that moments of tension are almost immediately diffused by sheer silliness, as well as disbelief as to why these participants are even entertaining his demands. It’s soon revealed that CEO and Wife may not have a relationship as picture perfect as they claim, and the majority of Windfall involves peeling back the layers of this fractured relationship — kidnapping as marriage counseling. Still through it all, that score drones on in the background, hinting at a coming plot twist that admittedly takes a tad too long to materialize, plunging the film fully into the noir it keeps claiming to be. Given this genre texturing, maybe it shouldn’t exactly surprise that Windfall lacks focus, a three-hander comprised of individuals who have all the depth of their appointed monikers. It’s easy to poke fun at the movie’s attempts at topicality, how CEO is a multi-billionaire who earned his fortune by creating an algorithm that eliminated corporate redundancy — i.e. the human element — or how Wife spends her days overseeing charitable organizations, thus making her impervious to the pitfalls of wealth. Nobody is provided even less backstory, save for a few minor implications here and there about how he may have been the victim of the aforementioned redundancy. At one point, CEO even complains about how hard it is to be rich and white, because it means he will always have a target on his back.
But mitigating some of that bleariness is that Windfall reveals itself to be, quite purposely, only interested in archetypes, much like the genre it so lovingly apes. Its shallowness is inherent in both the story being told and the way these events play out. If anything, then, the film is a portrait of toxic masculinity, with Wife besieged by two very specific types of male entitlement: that which believes its wealth grants power, and that which takes that power through violence simply because they think they are owed it. In classic noir fashion, female empowerment is exemplified through our femme fatale, a woman who finally gains the courage to take back control of her life, male dominance be damned. Collins delivers the film’s best performance, an armor of throbbing vulnerability hiding a steely reserve, while Plemons manages to convey his character’s rampant narcissism and ineffectualness through his repeated whines of the word, “Babe,” the likes of which haven’t been heard since Will Arnett in Hot Rod. Segel gets the most screen time but has the least amount of heavy-lifting to do, adequately fulfilling the duties of his role without actually bringing much juice to the table. It’s a minor bummer given that The End of the Tour and Forgetting Sarah Marshall proved he’s got reservoirs of depth to spare, but such is not asked of him here. Then again, Windfall doesn’t ask much of audiences, either. Its surface pleasures, however, are undeniably satisfying, even as the calories ultimately prove a bit empty. That’s okay — everyone likes dessert.
You can currently stream Charlie McDowell’s Windfall on Netflix.