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Josh Reviews Tusk

September 29th, 2014
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I’m a huge fan of Kevin Smith.  I like his movies, and more than that, I like Mr. Smith himself.  He’s a great character and a hilarious story-teller.  There have been some fantastically-packed DVD and blu-ray releases of his earlier films, and sometimes I think the special features are even more fun than the films themselves, as you get to see Mr. Smith and his pals goofing around and having a grand old time.  The commentary tracks for Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy are among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded.  When Mr. Smith started releasing DVDs of his Q & A performances around the country, I was thrilled.  I think that first An Evening with Kevin Smith two-DVD set is one of my favorite DVDs that I own.  There are two stories in particular — Smith’s recounting of his experiences writing a draft of a Superman film that was never made, and his experience working on a project with Prince (“Chaka mad?”  “Chaka real mad!!”) — that are two of the funniest things I have ever seen.

But while I still consider myself a big fan, my interest in Mr. Smith’s films has waned, to the point that I actually haven’t seen his last three movies.  I skipped Cop Out because Mr. Smith only directed it, rather than having written the script, and from the trailers I thought it looked extremely unfunny.  I was intrigued when Mr. Smith made Red State, which seemed like a huge divergence from the comedies that he had made to that point.  I will see that film someday, because I am curious, but I’m not that interested in the horror story and so I just haven’t made time to see the film yet.  Then there was Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie.  I think the animated Clerks TV show is a hugely under-appreciated gem, a hilarious six-episode buried treasure.  Mr. Smith has been talking for years and years about making an animated film, but when it finally arrived I was disappointed to see that it seemed like a totally different creature than the series that I loved.  (It was also missing the involvement of David Mandel, who was a key creative voice on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who I think is the reason that Clerks: The Animated Series was so amazing.)  Still, I probably would have seen the film, except that it wasn’t released to theatres or DVD, you could only see it if you went to one of Mr. Smith’s traveling roadshow exhibitions of the film, which I wasn’t able to do. (Though it’s now available on demand, so I suspect I’ll check it out eventually.)

Which brings me to Tusk.  Like Red State, this also appears to be a huge departure from Mr. Smith’s regular style of film.  (Like Woody Allen, I guess fans can now start complaining that they prefer his “earlier, funnier” films!)  But I was intrigued by the film’s origin: it apparently began life as a joke of a story that Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier batted around together on one of their podcasts.  (Click here to hear it.)  That, plus the crazy hook — it’s a horror film about a man getting kidnapped and turned into a walrus?? — had me intrigued.

Unfortunately, ugh, the film really disappointed me.

What’s amazing is that the first half of the film is actually pretty excellent!  There is some great direction in that first half.  Mr. Smith succeeded in creating a compellingly dark, creepy tone, and there are some moments that look quite beautiful.  Mr. Smith has come a long way as a director.  I enjoyed the narrative structure, in which we would periodically cut away from Wallace (Justin Long)’s plight to flash back to moments before his trip, helping us establish his character and that of his two friends, his podcasting partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up) and his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez, all grown up).  Most of all, I really enjoyed the two lead performances by Justin Long and Michael Parks (as the creepy, Walrus-obsessed old man Howard Howe).

Justin Long is great as Wallace (though, ugh, the character’s name is really Wallace?  Really??).  He brings just the exact right amount of obnoxious smarm to the role, making Wallace a character you can sort of enjoy hating.  This is a delicate balance.  On the one hand, you want this character to deserve the comeuppance that is about to befall him, but on the other hand, you still need the audience to continue rooting for him.  Mr. Long strikes just the right balance. Then there is Michael Parks, who delivers a staggeringly great performance as Howard Howe.  You literally cannot look away from Mr. Parks whenever he is on screen.  His character is absolutely magnetic.  We can see how he ropes in Wallace, and Mr. Parks delivers the same trick for the audience.  I could have listened to this character telling stories for hours longer.  Mr. Smith enjoys writing lengthy monologues for his characters.  Not every actor can pull off their delivery, but Mr. Parks slams this one right out of the park.

Even once Howard’s loony walrus-obsession is revealed and he begins torturing Wallace and beginning his transformation, I was still with the film.  Wallace’s horror at what is being done to him was well-played by Mr. Long, and at this point I was certainly interested as to where the heck this crazy story was going.

Unfortunately, it was going nowhere.  You can almost hear the skid-marks on the soundtrack at the moment that we see the Walrus-creature into which Howe has transformed Wallace.  I honestly wasn’t sure whether this moment was supposed to be funny or horrifying.  It’s neither, it’s a weird something in between, and I was totally thrown out of the story at that point. Things get worse from there, and the entire second half has the same problem that the Walrus-revelation moment has, in that I honestly have no idea whether Mr. Smith & co. thought the audience would be laughing at this stuff or not.  Because the first half of the film was so serious, I can’t imagine that they wanted the second half to be comedic.  And it certainly isn’t.  But on the other hand, it doesn’t work at all as drama or horror.

As soon as Wallace-as-Walrus is revealed, Wallace for all intents and purposes drops out of the story.  Instead, our focus turns to a new character introduced in the second half, Guy Lapointe, a detective found by Teddy & Ally who has been on the trail of the crazy Howard Howe for years.  This is a familiar character-type in this sort of film, and perhaps the reason this character is so off-the-wall loony tunes is because of a (failed) choice to make this familiar character-type more interesting.  Guy Lapointe is played by Johnny Depp (though he goes uncredited in the film), under ridiculous makeup and sporting an even more ridiculous Quebecian accent.  Ever since the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Mr. Depp has been creating one over-the-top character after another, few of them successful.  Guy Lapointe is the nadir of this descent.  The character is absurd, not funny, and grating, and he totally sends the movie flying off the rails.  Immediately after the ineffective Walrus reveal, we have to sit through two excruciatingly long Guy Lapointe scenes, and by the time we are finally through them the movie had totally lost me.  If this is all supposed to be funny, it fails entirely.  And if we’re still supposed to be treating all this as a serious horror story, Guy Lapointe completely undermines that.

The film never recovers, and the ending is probably the worst part of it all.  The epilogue, set a year later, is eye-rollingly bad.  For some reason Teddy and Ally have left Wallace living as a Walrus up in Canada.  Um, why?  We’re supposed to believe that somehow Howe’s abuse of Wallace somehow made Wallace actually believe he’s a walrus, but the film never earns that.  When we see that the gift, wrapped in newspaper, that they’ve brought for their friend is actually a fish, I couldn’t believe what I was watching.

The crazy thing about all this is that, if you listen to the podcast, this whole thing began as a joke.  They actually play a bit of that original podcast over the film’s closing credits, the part in which Mr. Smith and Mr. Mosier laughingly come up with that terrible final scene that we just watched.  Smith and Mosier are bringing each others to tears of laughter as they talk about Wallace going “Full Walrus” and the notion that his friends bring him a fish wrapped in newspaper.

Had this film been made as a SPOOF of horror films, it could have been genius!  To take this insane notion and wrap it in the trappings and familiar devices of horror films could have been a hoot.  It could have been a tremendous play on horror movie cliches (in the way, say, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story absolutely decimated the familiar musical bio-pic tropes).  But instead, Mr. Smith has for some reason decided to take this crazy story and play it absolutely straight.  Now maybe it’s possible for that to have worked.  (Is a man turning another man into a walrus really that much crazier that most horror movie stories?  Before Tusk I saw trailers for several other horror films, each of which had stories that, when you think about them, are just as nutty.  An evil doll?  A possessed house?) But Mr. Smith did not succeed at that, and I am mystified by his decision to tell this story in FULL SERIOUS mode.  That final scene is played with total seriousness and weight, like it’s a really momentous and emotional moment.  But it’s absolutely ridiculous!  And sadly not in a way that’s funny, just in a way that’s frustrating.  And for Mr. Smith to then, minutes later, actually play us the podcast discussing that very moment, in which one can so clearly understand that that ending was originally intended as a JOKE, just boggles my mind.  Simply by hearing those two minutes of podcast I could immediately understand what this movie could have been, what it should have been.

I really would love to know what Mr. Smith and his collaborators were thinking.  Did they think they had made a spoof?  Did they think they had succeeded in making a serious horror movie?  I have no idea.

Skip this one, my friends.

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