Tusk (dir. Kevin Smith)

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

Kevin Smith seemed to have gotten tired of making his usual film right around “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back”, and so that film served as a send off to that phase of his career.  Sadly, he followed that up with “Jersey Girl” which succumbed to the anti-Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck wave that came about after “Gigli”.  It’s nice that Affleck’s career has recovered, but Lopez still seems to be in career hell.  “Jersey Girl” was actually pretty decent, though the last act was way too smaltzy, and Smith’s fanbase didn’t want to see Smith watered down to a PG-13 dramedy.  So, he went back to the well with “Clerks II”, and that was all fine and good, but then it was clear that Smith felt stifled creatively.

Smith now seems to be in a phase where he’s mimicking other filmmakers in order to decide who he wants to be next.  “Zack & Miri Make A Porno” was Smith trying to be Judd Apatow or any of the directors who have worked with his merry repertory cast.  That film was, to me, a creative success, but it bombed in relation to the other large grossing comedies of that group (“Pineapple Express”, “Superbad”, and the like).  “Cop Out” was the first film Smith directed that he didn’t write himself, and it turned into a mediocre, by-the-numbers entry into the buddy-cop genre.  Then came “Red State”, where Smith went WAY out of the box and tried to be a mix of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers in a film that dealt with religion and politics and came out with no particular message.  It was Smith’s best directed feature and yet one of his weakest screenplays.  It seemed like the man made a giant step forward as a director (his prior films got increasingly better from a cinematic point of view, but they were all pretty dry visually), but he got too lost in self-pleasure over his long monologues  to know when to step out of his own way.  Not to mention all the brouhaha around the release, with the fake auction at Sundance and the four-walling distribution method.

Now we have “Tusk”, which was released in a traditional limited manner, and not successfully at that.  The story was born out of a podcast where Smith and his long-time producing partner Scott Mosier discussed a classified ad they saw where a man offered free rent if the applicant agreed to dress like a walrus.  They broke down the story then and there, Smith’s fans tweeted that they wanted to see the story, and a film was made.  “Tusk” is structured in a similar way to Hitchcock’s “Psycho”: a main character goes missing, and two people task a private detective to find that missing person.  “Tusk” even gives us a shot of a car dumped into a lake, ala “Psycho”.  The similarities don’t end there, as we also get a creepy person surrounded by weird objects he has on the wall delivering creepy dialogue, and that same creepy person having a background of abuse as a child, but “Tusk” and “Psycho” aren’t films that FEEL like one another.

Instead, “Tusk” feels like Smith’s take on “The Human Centipede”, though “Centipede” leaned more on the horror scale of horror-comedy whereas Smith’s film is much more comedy than horror.  Both of these films feature a crazy misanthrope making a creature out of unwilling humans, and both films are not quite as gross as we think they are while we’re watching them.  “Tusk” is Smith perhaps trying to be Eli Roth but instead winding up as Tom Six.  “Tusk” is a joke turned into a film, and whether the joke is good or not will depend on each particular viewer.  I found it uneven but eminently watchable.

Our plot involves Warren (Justin Long, back in “Jeepers Creepers” mode), a podcaster who, along with his partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment…yeah, he’s still around) build their show around making fun of viral videos and interviewing the subjects.  So basically they are the podcast version of Daniel Tosh.  I’m not sure how this works well for a podcast as that is a medium that wouldn’t allow one to SEE the videos, but whatever.  The only viral video the film shows us is of a kid waving a sword around like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”, but the kid cuts his leg off.  The CGI for the video is HORRIBLE and distracting, with the accidental amputation looking like a bad amateur Youtube video’s animation.  In any event, Warren flies up to Canada to interview the kid, only to find that the kid has killed himself.  Left with no interview and no material for the following week’s podcast, and stuck in Canada, he brightens up when he finds a handwritten letter posted above the urinal in the men’s bathroom of a bar.  The letter offers to share interesting maritime stories.  Warren contacts the man and drives two hours to his impressive home in the middle of nowhere.

The man is Howard Howe (Michael Parks).  He offers Warren tea and regales him with stories of meeting Ernest Hemingway and being saved by a walrus after being lost at sea.  Warren passes out during the story and wakes up to find one of his legs amputated. Howard claims Warren was bitten by a venomous spider and the leg had to go lest the poison reach his heart, but after a short time it becomes clear that Howard drugged Warren himself.  Shortly after that, it becomes clear that Howard is intent on mutilating Warren until he can fit into a crude walrus suit Howard has constructed.  Howard hates human beings, but remains fond of the walrus that saved him, who he dubbed Mr. Tusk.  Howard will turn Warren into a walrus, or kill Warren if he doesn’t make a suitable walrus companion.

Meanwhile, Teddy and Warren’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) go searching for him, and wind up enlisting the help of ex-detective Guy Lapointe.  Guy is played by an uncredited Johnny Depp and continues Depp’s pattern of playing really weird, out-there characters.  As Guy, Depp has the worst and most over the top French-Canadian accident ever caught on film.  Depp lives in France, making this all the more baffling.  His appearance in the film, coming after a horrific revealing of Warren in the walrus suit, kind of brings the film to a halt, and Depp actually takes away from the film with this weird, showboating role.  The comedy and the horror in this film mesh well enough, I suppose, but the weird Depp character, and also a large number of unsuccessful Canadian jokes, result in an uneven final product.

The ending of the film is ludicrous and defies basic logic.  Why Warren ends up here he ends up, and is ALLOWED to end up there, makes no sense.  Smith seems to be stuck with the ending because it’s the one he came up with during the original podcast, but in a film that was already pretty ridiculous this turn of events is one absurdity too far.  That said, the film as a whole is very entertaining and watchable all the way through.  Smith still gives his characters passages of dialogue that are way too long at times, but at least he now knows to cut away to B-roll to break it up, or add other cuts and dialogue interjections to build tension rather than bore the audience.  This is one of Smith’s better directed films, and the production design of Howard’s home is superb and richly lit with reds and dark woods adding great ambience. The walrus suit, and seeing Warren in it, work really well.  It looks like Leatherface from “Texas Chainsaw” decided he needed a pet.

While Howard gives more than his share of lines about how humans are evil scum and animals are better, there’s no real message or meaning to the film.  The film really just exists to be a weird little artifact, and it’s amazing that it came together as well as it did.  There are plenty of quibbles to be had with it, including black and white flashbacks that look cheap and an insufferable scene between Depp and Parks where they seem to having a who-has-the-most-annoying-voice contest, but the film as a whole holds together reasonably well.  Smith is a comedy guy who wants to make movies that aren’t just comedies, and “Tusk” is enough of a comedy to be both safe for Smith, but also have enough weird-o elements for Smith not to get bored.  If Smith wants to experiment with weird ideas like this, as opposed to pretentious outings like “Red State”, I encourage him to do so. B.

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