Kevin Smith's 'Tusk' is a wildly erratic one-joke movie buoyed only by the indelible Michael Parks
Tusk A24 Films
Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment and Johnny Depp
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes
September 19, 2014
(out of four)
During the closing credits of Tusk, we get the rare opportunity to hear the very genesis of the movie we just watched. It's a recording of an episode of Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier's SModcast, where the idea first took root and where the two shaped it into a rough narrative outline. The snippet more or less describes the final scenes we've just witnessed (with some variations). But mostly it's just Smith and Mosier giggling to themselves. Giggling about what a crazy movie they've just invented, and then giggling some more.
The problem is not with the idea. The problem is that Smith - who wrote and directed the film - never got beyond the shell of an idea he started with. Crazy old man turns unwitting visitor into a walrus. He has the setup, and he has the ending. But he doesn't have anything in between. I mean, nothing. He only has enough material for a 30-minute short film - and I think he knows it. The whole of Tusk feels like that podcast clip, just Kevin Smith and his friends giggling over ideas that play much better in conversation than they do on screen. At least in podcast format, you don't expect the ideas to be fully fleshed-out. But when the feature version barely gets past its initial concept, and doesn't even bother with a second act, it's tiresome at best, embarrassingly lazy at worst.
And frankly, the idea isn't so bonkers that it sells itself on pure originality. It's a "crazy" movie only if you haven't seen many crazy movies. (I'd like to see, for example, what a shocked Tusk audience member would do with, say, Ki-duk Kim's Moebius.)
But that's probably beside the point. A movie about a crazy man turning his houseguest into a walrus is as good an idea as any, and I admire that Smith actually follows through on it rather than introducing the concept and then finding some way to avoid really going there. Smith goes there - he just doesn't ultimately find much to do once he gets there. (Except distract us with a disastrous subplot about an eccentric detective, but we'll get to that later.)
Tusk is at its most interesting just before our doomed protagonist discovers what is going to happen to him. His name is Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a smug, unlikable prick who, along with his friend Teddy, co-hosts a popular podcast* centered around stories about, and interviews with, eccentrics, weirdos and accidental Internet stars. Like an audio version of Tosh.0 with a less talented host. He's become a bit of a mini-star and seems to have a good life - right down to the gorgeous girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) whom he takes for granted, and who stays with him even though she openly acknowledges she doesn't even like, respect or trust him anymore.
* The name of their podcast is The Not-See Party (ho, ho), which is the kind of wordplay created by people who don't really get how wordplay works. Mostly I think it's used here because Smith is still in that phase where he thinks any allusion to Nazis is inherently "irreverent," or edgy, or something. You can practically hear him giggling over the soundtrack every time the phrase is used.
After an interview opportunity in Manitoba falls through, Wallace is suddenly in desperate need of an interview subject, and by chance happens to stumble upon an enticing opportunity tacked to a bathroom bulletin board. It's an offer of room and board in a country manor from an old man who promises he has a lifetime of wild stories to tell. Wallace gets in touch with him and makes the two-hour drive out to the country to meet with him. The man, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), does not disappoint. His mansion is filled with mementos from all over the world. His stories are impossibly grand - drinking with Hemingway during the war, getting lost at sea and rescued by a noble walrus, etc.
It's all going swimmingly until Wallace wakes up the next morning bound to a wheelchair and missing a leg. Howard insists, at first, that he was bitten by a poisonous spider and the local doctor was forced to amputate his leg. But he soon owns up to his ultimate scheme - that he intends to turn Wallace into a walrus.
As endearingly strange as all that is, Smith simply doesn't know how to calibrate the horror once it's been revealed, nor channel Howard's madness into something representatively unhinged. In fact, he doesn't seem to know quite what to with it. After a nicely moody introductory scene between Wallace and Howard, seated in front of a fireplace, Smith loses all sense of aesthetic purpose. Later scenes are bland and over-lit, completely ruining their effect.
But the worst of it all comes when the film introduces surprise guest Johnny Depp, complete with cross-eyes, an unkempt mustache, a false nose, a Gallagher wig, a beret and a funny accent. He plays capital-Q quirky Québécois detective Guy Lapointe, who has been on Howard Howe's trail for years now. Depp makes sure to deliver every line with as many tics, pauses, stutters and mispronunciations as possible, to the point that every scene seems like it's twice as long as it should be. I like Depp, but his performance here is a dreadful collection of forced and piled-on eccentricities.
Smith makes it worse by constantly underlining how quirky it's all supposed to be. There's one particularly labored scene with Lapointe, the entirety of which is accompanied by hackneyed French accordion music (because he's French-Canadian, see?!) that never lets up.
Frankly, if Smith had shown as much commitment to developing his central conceit as he did to that accordion music, this might have even become a real movie. Instead, it feels like chunks of potentially interesting material are missing, and Smith proves incapable of really bringing out the grotesquerie or absurdity to the levels the premise deserves.
Tusk is an unwieldy tonal and structural mess. At one point, there's a clumsily deployed red herring (which has the potential to take the film down a much different, and possibly darker, rabbit hole) that is introduced and then done away with almost immediately - to the extent that I'm not entirely confident Smith is aware of the red herring in the first place.
The film is sloppy from beginning to end. Smith doesn't seem particularly interested in thinking much beyond whatever he came up with on that podcast. Tusk never justifies the arc it provides for Wallace, and therefore doesn't earn its ending. It's easy to find a few things to admire here - Parks' great, deranged performance; the makeup and effects work - that you wish the movie had gotten a lot more out of it. This may have made a terrific short film. At feature length, it feels like a mildly amusing joke that goes on for way too long.