Thursday, September 18, 2014

Better to be a Walrus: Blubbery, uneven "Tusk" still lives up to twisted brilliance of premise

Tusk (2014)
102 min., rated R.

Kevin Smith has never been one to play by the rules, and if he had publicly spoken about retiring as a filmmaker, here's hoping he keeps heading in this sort of unashamedly weird, unpredictable direction. In an extreme change of pace with 2011's angry, provocative self-distributed horror-satire "Red State," he had something to say about hypocritical, evangelical nutters and the lack of humanity in characters even situated as the "heroes." Now, born out of a bogus Gumtree classifieds ad Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier discussed on their SModcast podcast ("SModcast 259: The Walrus & the Carpenter"), horror novelty "Tusk" is the writer-director's second foray into the genre and his next reinvigorated step in thinking outside the box. The insanely loony, one-and-only idea of a man being surgically transformed into a walrus isn't something we hear every day and it's bound to get audiences talking by the water cooler. Before an irritating "special guest star" pays a visit and muddles the tone of a taut, horrific nightmare, the film nevertheless pays off as an audacious, outlandish campfire yarn that could only come from one really cracked mind. 

With a whiskery mustache, Justin Long plays smug, insensitive, uncensored L.A. podcaster Wallace Brighton aka "Wandering Wallace," the co-host of podcast "The Not-See Party" (sounds like Nazi) with buddy Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). Together, they find and mock "weird and interesting" people online to interview. Wallace is always the one to take the flight, while Teddy stays back, and their latest subject of ridicule lives in the Great White North. When Wallace arrives in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, the YouTube sensation has killed himself, so he turns to a Plan B. On the wall of a tavern restroom, he stumbles upon a flyer written by an old man who seeks a lodger to spend time with him in his Manitoba mansion and listen to his sea-faring stories. Wallace makes the trip to the Pippy Hill estate, where the wheelchair-bound Howard Howe (Michael Parks) is expecting him. Mr. Howe offers his guest some tea and starts telling stories of his ocean voyages, where he met Ernest Hemingway at the Beach of Normandy and then found his savior in a walrus he named "Mr. Tusk." The smartassy Wallace soon gets more than he bargains for when he wakes up the next morning a little woozy from the tea and surgery on his leg; it seems Mr. Howe is more than eccentric and quite disturbed with plans of recreating a "Mr. Tusk." Meanwhile, back in L.A., Teddy and Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) start a search party, but will it be too late for good ol' Wallace?

Certifiably gonzo and without any failure of pitiless nerve, "Tusk" is a demented, genre-hopping oddity that will either sell or baffle an audience with its sheer bat-shit craziness. Take it as you will, but how we're supposed to feel or take any of it becomes anyone's guess. Despite Kevin Smith being known for writing such sharp, funny dialogue, the unsettling horror stuff is actually the strongest component here, while the humor often feels annoyingly self-satisfied and begins to test one's patience. With Wallace as the Dumb, Crass, Unevolved American, Smith seems to want to make a critique on xenophobia. Equal-opportunity jabs at Americans and Canadians are actually where most of the snarky jokes stem from, whether it be Wallace buying one of those "Big Gulp"-y fountain soda cups at a convenience store, or Wallace making a "Degrassi" joke to two of the teenage Canadian clerks (played by Harley Quinn Smith, Kevin's daughter, and Lily Rose Depp, Johnny's daughter) and mocking how they say "aboot." And, for a feature film, it runs into the problem of padding—or, in this caseblubber and extreme self-indulgence. Exhibit A: once the insufferably wacky Guy Lapointe (played by an unbilled star who's pseudonymously credited as "Guy Lapointe") is brought into the second half, the film changes tone, remaining wonky but becoming a different movie entirely, and noticeably loses forward momentum over this tangent. That this French-Canadian police inspector with a heavy accent is a total caricature out of "The Pink Panther" is less of a criticism than the caricature being an unfunny, insufferable one who brings the film to a screeching halt every time he appears and gives an overwritten, long-winded speech. Also, a strained, interminable flashback scene between Howe and Lapointe falls dead as a mackerel. Named after a Canadian hockey player, Lapointe might have been a hoot on set, but it comes across more as Smith getting carried away in wanting [the A-list actor's name] to oversell some self-consciously whacked-out shtick. 

Justin Long, whose skin was last on the line in 2001's "Jeepers Creepers," is tasked with playing an obnoxious jackass with an off-putting mustache that will make him the perfect specimen, and while that may be intentional for the film's mean, satirical leanings, it's hard to root against Wallace's interspecies metamorphosis. Game to be put through the emotional and physical wringer, the actor is left to scream his head off, but there comes a point where the viewer can sympathize a bit more from the unexpectedly touching sadness seen in his face, which can still be found in all of that stitched-up animal blubber. Though not as long as the ten-minute sermon he gave in "Red State," a fiery-eyed Michael Parks delivers several verbose monologues here and puts in commanding, wildly chilling work. As any seasoned vet knows when playing a villainous part, it is much more interesting to play them as a human being who doesn't see himself as evil. Parks does just that and makes Howard Howe a deranged movie monster to remember alongside preacher Abin Cooper. Even once a plot point is introduced that could put her character in a poor light, Genesis Rodriguez still remains warm and emotionally open as Wallace's girlfriend Ally, while Haley Joel Osment, who could be approaching a career rebirth after his child-star years in "The Sixth Sense," is simultaneously nice and startling to see back on screen as an adult.

Love it or hate it, "Tusk" delivers on its promise and certainly shocks. From its bizarro premise alone, the film has a must-see, "am-I-really-seeing-what-I'm-seeing?" quality about it. If you've been salivating to see a "Misery"-esque imprisonment situation with a disturbing, unpleasant twist that rivals "The Human Centipede" (and come on, who hasn't?), step right up to Kevin Smith's freak show. What more convincing do you really need? Once we see the final step of Wallace's transformation (courtesy of Robert Kurtzman's gnarly make-up effects), it really is a grotesque sight that will burn in the mind, leave one speechless, or at least earn a gasp; the irreversible repercussions of the last scene are also horrifying, tragic, uncomfortably funny, and just unshakable. This is not an easy one to process emotionally, as no one will feel indifferent after experiencing it and no one can say the film doesn't follow through or go far enough, but one also wishes it were more consistent and disciplined with the absurd digressions trimmed down. If anything, it fulfills its existence as a midnight movie entry for audiences to hoot, holler, cringe, and make walrus bellowing sounds with Wallace.

Grade: B - 

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