Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Movie Review: Tusk

Directed by: Kevin Smith.
Written by: Kevin Smith.
Starring: Michael Parks (Howard Howe), Justin Long (Wallace Bryton), Genesis Rodriguez (Ally Leon), Haley Joel Osment (Teddy Craft), Johnny Depp (Guy Lapointe), Harley Morenstein (Border Agent), Ralph Garman (Detective).

Kevin Smith is ever interesting, ever frustrating filmmaker. There was a time – in the late 1990s – that Smith looked like he may become one of the great writer-directors of his generation, but that somehow never came to fruition. Every time he seems to take a step forward, the next film ends up being a step backwards. His last film was Red State – a horror film about a group of horny teenagers who get in over their head with a backwoods family of religious nuts that eventually draws in the FBI. That film wasn’t great – but it was an interesting one, basically saying that all three groups – the teenagers, the religious nuts, the government – were all equally idiotic. I said at the time that while I didn’t think Red State was a great horror film, that it showed promise – and that I wanted to see Smith work in the genre again, because he had a great horror film in him. So now, three years later, comes Tusk – which brings Smith back to the horror genre, like I wanted, but definitely is a step in the wrong direction. The film has a ridiculous premise – but very clearly could have been a great guilty pleasure, if nothing else. Instead, Smith doesn’t really take his premise at all serious, and ends up making a smug, superficial film, that tries to be both funny and scary – and a few isolated moments aside, doesn’t achieve either.

The film stars Justin Long as Wallace Bryton – an asshole professional podcaster. The premise of his show – the Not-See Party (ha-ha, a Nazi joke) is that he goes out on the road, and meets weird people, and then comes back to the podcast and tells his partner, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) all about it. His latest trip is going to take him to Winnipeg (there seems to be no reason for setting much of the film in my beloved Canada, except the fact that Smith seems to think people saying eh and aboot is hilarious). The person he is supposed to meet – a kid who cut his own leg off while showing off his sword moves – has killed himself – which Wallace doesn’t care about, except that he now no longer has a show. But in a bar, he sees an ad on a bulletin board, written in long hand, by a man claiming to have lots of stories. This seems like a good bet, so Wallace calls the man on the phone, and then goes up to see him. Howard Howe (Michael Parks) is the kind of crazy eccentric that Wallace needs for his show – especially when he starts telling his stories, including one where as a young man he was shipwrecked on an island for months on end, with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk, as his only companion (who, of course, he fell in love with). But Howard is more than eccentric – he’s batshit crazy, and has a plan for Wallace. He drugs him, cuts off his leg, and through a series of surgeries tries to turn Wallace into a human walrus to recapture his love. Meanwhile Teddy, and Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), team up with a crazy French Canadian detective (Johnny Depp, playing a weirdo – but hey, it’s a different kind of weirdo than his typical one, as this one has a French Canadian accent) to try and track down what happened to him.

There are a few isolated moments in the film that work quite well – a creepy moment when Long, now full walrus, has to learn to swim, and sees firsthand what will happen if he doesn’t – is the only legitimately scary moment in the film. The comedy in the film doesn’t work much better – and everything with Depp could have been cut completely, as it drags the film to a grinding, awkward halt right as it should be ramping up. The film is trying to have something clever to say about humanity – Wallace is an asshole, who has changed with success, and now no longer feels anything, which Ally doesn’t like – she wants the old Wallace back. But he needs to become a walrus to become human again – and by then it’s too late.

The premise of the movie is, of course, ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked. In particular, Smith gets fine performances by Long and especially Parks, who realizes how ridiculous it all is and dives headlong into his performance. The problem with the film, I think, is that Smith quite clearly thinks the whole damn thing is a joke. During the end credits, he plays a clip of his own podcast with Scott Mosier, where they lay out of the plot for Tusk (at a time when he didn’t think he would ever make it) – and he laughs all the way through it. That makes a certain degree of sense – it is ridiculous – but it’s hard to take a movie seriously when the movie itself doesn’t. It would be easier if it was a straight ahead comedy – but the ending of the movie goes for something deeper – but Smith is still holding everything at arm’s length, basically sitting back and laughing at his own movie. And if he doesn’t take it seriously – then why the hell should we. This is one of the year’s worst.

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