Tusk (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Tusk (2014)

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Wallace Bryton is a once-struggling comedian who found success with his podcast, The Not-See Party.  After pushing one of his subjects to suicide he finds a note from an eccentric old man with many stories to tell and an affection for the walrus.  When Wallace goes missing he'll find out just how far the old man's affection goes.  Kevin Smith wrote and directed Tusk which stars Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, and Michael Parks.

Screaming into nothingFor a man who has settled into a public persona that has changed very little over the last twenty years, it's nice to see that Kevin Smith still challenging himself as a director.  He was long-ago crowned one of the Gen X slacker kings of cinema and since Clerks 2 has pushed himself into his own independent territory.  Red State, which I enjoyed, was self-released and while it didn't light the world up it showed that he still had a willingness to do things his way.  The farcical horror of Red State that Smith tinkered with is still present in Tusk, and shows that he's not resting on his laurels.  Good for him.

Unfortunately, that's one half of the faintest praise I'm going to be damning this film with.  Tusk is terrible, and had it found some way to be offensively bad it would be one of the worst films of the year.  As it stands Tusk is a decent short film that could have been padded to 40 minutes and instead 90 interminably awful minutes of bewildering direction, tired dialogue, and one of the worst performances in the near four thousand films I've watched.

Smith has never had a flair for visual style.  Through most of the '90s and even into his live-action cartoon phase of the early millennium his films had a workmanlike quality to them that never aspired beyond a plane for two people to talk.  While this meant his films were never great to look at, he at least had a talent with words and framed his films accordingly.  There's no sense in ruining a good thing, which makes many of the cinematic flourishes of Tusk a step backward after the meat and potatoes style of Red State.

Meet Ally, Wallace's girlfriend, who frequently lounges around in her underwear. This, sadly, is about as deep as Ally gets.

Meet Ally, Wallace's girlfriend, who frequently lounges around in her underwear. Smith used to try and write women who challenged the status quo and spoke their minds, now he just writes a woman who plays with Wallace's penis in the rare moments he isn't.

Tusk is both boring to watch and puzzling to figure out what Smith is going for with the visuals.  The film is heavy with flashbacks, some told in single-profile closeup, others told with the same medium shot distance that Smith got so comfortable with in the '90s.  But then there are flashbacks into the past where the frame compresses down to a small square in black and white, only to show another flashback to the same point in the past filmed in widescreen.  It's a fruitless question to ask why these are done at all when nothing of importance is communicated with the change in styles.  They smack of someone who realizes they're knee-deep in a mundane situation and is trying to salvage something interesting from the production.

Even Smith's dialogue, one of his trademark flourishes, is astoundingly bad here.  Smith's humor level is established early on when Wallace (Justin Long) has a long conversation with an airport employee about the "Canado's and the Canadon'ts," followed by what is basically a bullet point of standard observations about Canadians (they like hockey, har har har).  Even the monologues, once the high point of any Smith film, get bogged down in a sea of banal observations or terrible characterization with traits such as "guy who likes sex and penis jokes" and "kooky old man".  Smith also makes the baffling decision to keep the identity of the people on the receiving ends of each monologue a secret for far longer than reasonably necessary.

At one point in the film Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) cries into the camera and someone's arm reaches out to caress her face.  At this point in the film there are only four characters and if three of them have their whereabouts accounted for why bother concealing the identity of the obvious fourth person?  It's padding at its most blatant made worse by shots that take great pains to put this mysterious person behind the camera or concealed by a door.

Michael Parks remains the high point of Smith's recent films but can't do much to salvage Tusk.

Michael Parks remains the high point of Smith's recent films but can't do much to salvage Tusk.

None of this will adequately prepare those of you who still want to watch Tusk for the character of Guy Lapointe, French-Canadian detective who helps try to find Wallace.  Guy, on his own, is a torturous character to sit through as he is prone to lengthy historical explanations of his involvement in just about everything while sometimes slipping into gibberish.  He's played by Johnny Depp who finally shows that he was actually putting effort into his last few performances, and Tusk shows just how wretched he can be when he's slumming.  While caked behind layers of makeup to appear unrecognizable he slurs, stretches vowels out to their breaking point, and begins his sentences as though he were in the middle of several other thoughts.  Unless the next 16 days have a horrible surprise in store for me, Johnny Depp's performance in Tusk is the worst of 2014 and the nadir of his career.

The other performances range from bad to decent.  Justin Long is not a great performer but whines his way through the first acts decently enough before being put in a situation that requires him to have reservoirs of frustration that he's not capable of.  Genesis Rodriguez and other guest slumming star Haley Joel Osment are little more than exposition devices that have their own subplots which amount to nothing.  Michael Parks, so gripping in Red State, is at least a mild amusement here but at one point has to match Johnny Depp's miserable performance in a scene featuring dueling accents so bad I wanted to give Tusk more money just to make it stop.

That other half of my faint praise comes from one great, bizarre, and hilarious scene where Tusk, Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk", and walrus tusks come into brutal focus.  But this payoff just highlights two things - that Tusk is better served as a Youtube short, and that some concepts just can't be stretched indefinitely.  I remain a staunch defender of many Kevin Smith films and hope that Tusk is a stoner's joke gone too far just this once - not the sign of a once-great talent lost to his own success.

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Tail - TuskTusk (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Kevin Smith.
Starring Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, and Johnny Depp.

Posted by Andrew

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