What is Jason Segel up to? It’s a question one is intended to pose during the opening of contained Netflix crime thriller Windfall, the actor poking his way through an extravagant Ojai house, pissing in the shower and rubbing his fingerprints off from door handles. But it’s also a question that many of us have been asking for the last almost decade of film, the actor fading from the comedy A-list and far, far into the background. It was weirdly Sex Tape – a film that also counts as Cameron Diaz’s last screen credit – that saw him pick up sticks and head to smaller fare (what on earth happened on the set of Sex Tape?) and even then, his choices have been sparse and minor (the few unlucky people who endured his teeth-achingly twee Charlie Kaufman-lite show Dispatches from Elsewhere will have also asked, with a more fatigued tenor, what is Jason Segel up to?).
We at least now know what he was up to during the pandemic, briefly at least, reuniting with director Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm and his then-wife Mary Steenburgen), who’d previously cast him in 2017’s little-loved sci-fi indie The Discovery. Segel co-crafted the story for McDowell’s latest, a frustratingly inert little trifle, bizarrely purchased by Netflix for a rumoured eight-figure total, intended audience more of a mystery than the story itself.
McDowell has also cast his wife, Emily in Paris’s Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) as his co-lead, playing the unfulfilled spouse of Jesse Plemons’s obnoxious tech billionaire. The couple are the owners of the aforementioned palace, interrupting what appears to be a robbery of sorts. The Covid-conceived and shot film, which could have easily been a stage play, then cosies the three up for the duration, spatting with each other as they figure out how to survive.
What’s most surprising about Windfall is how little surprise the script, written by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker and McDowell collaborator Justin Lader, then has to offer. We assume there’s something greater at play, some juicy secrets waiting to be unfurled, something to elevate it past the rather rote dynamic at its centre. Because without that, we’re stuck with a character-driven drama driven by characters that have fallen asleep at the wheel, the film tanked by an alarming overestimation of how much interest we’ll have in what three mostly uninteresting people have to say and do.
There’s a lackadaisical attempt to say something about wealth in America and what it represents for many – what should people with so much do with it and does having so much make one any more interesting or necessary than someone who doesn’t – but it’s more shallow, two-joints-in pondering than anything approaching genuine social commentary. Windfall is lightly positioned as some sort of contemporary, socially aware genre deconstruction but tonally, it feels more like we’re back in the late 90s, watching a talky, sub-Tarantino crime thriller. There’s a crackle missing from the dialogue, the script outdone by McDowell’s crisp, bright visuals (it’s a hell of a house) and a fun, atmospheric score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. There’s never really enough for the underserved trio of actors to sink their teeth into, although they all manage to coast comfortably enough – Plemons subverting his nice and quiet shtick to become loud and odious, Collins trying to bring depth to a bored trophy wife with edge and Segel further scuzzing it up to distance himself from any studio comedy associations.
Windfall is one of many, many, many Covid concoctions that feels like it was made more for those involved than for any real audience outside of Los Angeles, an acting exercise to pass time until postponed productions started up again. Taken on that level, it’s great those involved were able to remain productive. Taken on any other level, it’s not quite the reward its title would have you believe.