Following the death of a wealthy old man in a suspicious car accident in Acapulco, insurance investigator Jake Decker (Charles Grodin) teams up with beautiful model Ellie (Farrah Fawcett) and crusty old private eye Marcus (Art Carney) to solve this mystery. Posing as a married couple Jake and Ellie mingle among the beach-combing socialites, playboys and shady businessmen. Between banter and fun in the sun the pair eventually discover the dead man's wife (Eleanor Parker) and grownup children Karl (Robin Clarke) and Mamie (Joanna Rush) are being blackmailed by the Mob over his shady past.
After quitting Charlie's Angels Farrah Fawcett (then-billed Farrah Fawcett-Majors as one half of a Seventies power couple with soon-to-be-ex-husband Lee Majors) was briefly the most in-demand actress in Hollywood. Unfortunately poor career choices led to a string of flops that put paid to her movie career. One such flop was Sunburn. Based on a novel by award-winning mystery writer Stanley Ellin the film was co-produced by Farrah and Lee themselves and adapted for the screen by Stephen Oliver, John Daly and, surprisingly, James Booth the British character actor best known for his stellar turn in the classic Zulu (1964). His eccentric screenwriting efforts also include the Shô Kosugi ninja vehicle Pray for Death (1985).
The opening car crash and subsequent zany third act chase that has Farrah behind the wheel driving an apoplectic Art Carney through the middle of a bullfighting ring hark back to director Richard C. Sarafian's cult favorite Vanishing Point (1971). However the bulk of this would-be fun-and-frothy concoction of comedy, corporate intrigue and exotic adventure has more in common with Eighties trash television. Appropriately Joan Collins puts in an appearance as what else but a slutty socialite. In later years Farrah finally got the chance to prove her chops with more challenging roles, notably harrowing rape drama Extremeties (1986) and Robert Duvall's powerful The Apostle (1997). Sunburn however has her firmly in airhead beach babe mode, established from her intro as giggly, scatterbrained and accident-prone. Ellie's playful back-and-forth with Jake tries to evoke those classic screwball farces of the Thirties and Forties or at least one of Peter Bogdanovich's genre pastiches, but Grodin's dry wit and Farrah's lovable ditz act fail to gel. Some of Grodin's off-the-cuff one-liners raise a laugh and Farrah's approximation of Goldie Hawn's schtick is actually kind of charming, but overall the comedy is too heavy-handed.
Sarafian relies on stunning Acapulco scenery and Farrah's svelte, oft scantily-clad form to distract viewers from a threadbare, meandering plot. Not an awful lot happens and what story there is crawls along at a snail's pace. Indeed combined with the seductive scenery and easygoing pop tunes by Wings, 10cc and Heatwave, the pace is so sedate it practically lulls the viewer to sleep. Sunburn aspires to the kind of carefree caper film Hollywood excelled at in the Sixties but botched repeatedly throughout the gritty Seventies and arguably never recovered until Steven Soderbergh teamed with George Clooney decades later. Amidst an eccentric cast of Hollywood veterans, indie character actors and TV regulars, the film grievously wastes Eleanor Parker (who lands all of three lines as the widow), Seymour Cassel and Keenan Wynn. Art Carney on the other hand, still basking in the afterglow of his surprise Oscar win for Harry & Tonto (1974), scores almost as much screen-time as Farrah. In fact his character arguably does most of the detective work while Ellie and Jake sun themselves by the beach or sip cocktails by the pool. For his trouble Carney gets the chance to embarrass himself on the disco floor with Farrah before a nonsensical gun battle finally satisfies the two people clamoring to see Art and Charles Grodin as action heroes.