Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blubber Horror: TUSK

When Kevin Smith sets out to make a movie about a man who gets captured by an old eccentric with plans to turn him into a walrus, you can almost hear the glee he had in creating a concept so unusual. If you stick around through the end credits, you can actually hear it in an excerpt from the podcast on which he first thought up the idea. Now Tusk is a feature film playing at a theater near you and so very badly wants to be a new cult classic that every single strange detail feels included to fit that mold instead of bubbling up honestly out of a cracked vision pursued to illogical ends. It’s too calculating to be a passionate work of the macabre.

Smith’s an interesting case. He’s been making films for two decades now, largely on his own terms. He began, with Clerks and Chasing Amy, as a scrappy, raunchy indie director with some potential. With his dark Catholic fantasy comedy Dogma and sweetly dirty rom-coms like Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri, he seemed poised to grow as a filmmaker and activate that potential. Instead, he’s never grown. He’s always moving sideways, into dumb empty comedies, like Cop Out, or uncompromising overstuffed horror riffs, like Red State.

With Tusk, he’s striving for a midnight movie brand of queasy horror comedy. The results are filled with as much dead air and relentlessly unfunny banter as he’s ever created. It is a weird little movie that appears to have no reason to exist beyond proving Smith still has enough indie clout to get a small, strange, stupid thing on a lot of screens. Its attempts at humor do not add appreciably to the odd bit of body horror at the center. Instead, it seems to be apologizing for itself as it goes along. It shows something peculiar and grotesque, and then laughs it off. Only kidding, Smith says. Would that it be funnier, or creepier.

It stars Justin Long as an incredibly unlikable, caustic, sleazy, jerk podcaster who travels to Canada to interview a viral video star. When he arrives, his subject is, shall we say, suddenly permanently unavailable. Searching for a good replacement subject, he finds his way to a big creepy house in the middle of nowhere where an eccentric elderly man (Michael Parks) promises to tell his life story in exchange for company. The man’s a loon, and soon the podcaster is being fitted for a suit of walrus skin, ready to be sewn into his own epidermis. Meanwhile, Long’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and co-host (Haley Joel Osmet) go looking for their missing friend, teaming up with a Québécois investigator (Johnny Depp, going uncredited under a layer of sloppy makeup and sloppier accent work).

I just don’t know about this. Smith has roped in talented people. Long’s so good at being so terrible that the walrus at first seems to be fitting karmic retribution, though I’m not sure he’s supposed to be as bad as he comes across. Parks commits to his character’s creepy eccentricities, howling and murmuring and gleefully preparing for the debut of his long-awaited walrus-man friend. “Oh, Mr. Tusk,” he moans, sizing up his rubbery creation. He’s apparently arriving from another, better, version of this film.

Everyone else flails around in endless scenes devoid of suspense or laughs. It’s just dead on arrival. Rodriguez commits so fiercely to an underwritten role that I felt a little uncomfortable watching all that emoting go to waste. Osmet’s a long way from his earlier, better, child performances in The Sixth Sense and A.I., but you can catch glimmers of the good actor still in there. Depp is simply embarrassing, delivering quite possibly the worst performance of his career. The truth is that even with two (two!) Oscar nominees in the cast, no amount of acting could save this movie from itself.

The best that can be said about Tusk is that it exists. The entirety of its imagination has been expended on the premise, and on naming the man-who-might-be-a-walrus Wallace. But it’s also a failure of execution. It often looks bad, overlit and poorly staged. It’s tonally sloppy. Its pacing is lumpy, scenes stretching on and on. Its writing is tediously self-satisfied. I sat there watching a film fall apart around my very eyes. I was mildly diverted by the unpredictability of it all, but it’s hardly a fruitful strangeness. Tusk is so desperate to laugh at its own oddities, it doesn’t seem weird at all. It’s an attempt to make good trash that flirts with good before deciding to consign itself to the dumpster. 

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