Friday, February 6, 2015

What Does the Cat Say?: "The Voices" a genius, wonderfully weird black comedy

The Voices (2015)
107 min., rated R. 

Rest assured you haven't seen a hoot of craziness as deeply weird and perfectly pitched as "The Voices" in a while, or ever. The English-language debut of Iranian-born French filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (2007's personal, disarmingly inventive autobiographical graphic-novel adaptation "Persepolis"), this is a wild, what-the-hell departure from her filmography and the mainstream, having such an absurdist, bonkers, can't-miss premise such as a mild-mannered loner hearing the disembodied voices of his pet dog and cat, like an imaginary angel and devil on his shoulders. Working from a tight, daring, darkly funny script by Michael R. Perry (2010's "Paranormal Activity 2"), director Satrapi adventurously darts between acerbic, macabre humor and grim horror with a smooth hand and tugs a career-best performance out of Ryan Reynolds.  

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) is a chipper, socially inept packing-and-shipping worker at a fixture-and-faucet factory in the small, friendly town of Milton. Having stopped taking his prescribed anti-psychotic medication, he isn't quite there, despite talking it out with psychotherapist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver) during their court-appointed sessions. At home alone, Jerry talks to his vocal pets, dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers, and they talk back. Bosco is a good boy, while Mr. Whiskers has a salty mouth like a hooligan and abusively demands food regularly. At work, he invites Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the "cute English chick in accounting" on a dinner date at a Chinese restaurant, but she stands him up for karaoke night with the girls from the office, including accounting co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick), who shows Jerry the most affection. That same night, Jerry happens to pick up a rain-drenched Fiona, whose phone and car are both dead; he envisions Fiona as an angel, but then accidentally kills her. To avoid evidence of foul play, he takes the body home, cuts it up, and puts her head in the freezer. When Jerry goes back off his meds for a short time, his outlook fills him with pain and disorientation. On them, he doesn't see the grimy, blood-stained reality. Jerry just can't resist his murderous urges when being egged on by Mr. Whiskers, either. 

A hard film to peddle, "The Voices" is surely something else, a grisly, delightfully demented and practically genius crisp-black comedy. Following suit with Jerry's schizophrenia, director Marjane Satrapi manages her tone like a flying trapeze artist, always taking the risk that the film could fall to its death. It also dares to take a chance and have the viewer empathize with a schizophrenic serial killer who chops up women into pieces and stores all of their pieces into Tupperware containers. Even as Jerry commits these unspeakable acts of evil, he isn't really an evil guy. He just needs help. Fleeting flashbacks of Jerry's sad childhood with his mentally ill German mother (Valier Koch) offer insight into why he is the way he is. Maxime Alexandre's lensing completely mirrors Jerry's light and dark side with a sunny, comforting fantasy and the dingy, atmospheric reality. There is also striking attention to Udo Kramer's production design, from the Middle America bars, to the pink factory uniforms and Jerry's apartment sitting above an abandoned bowling alley. 

When the material is right, Ryan Reynolds can shine. He can be likably caddish and the cocky, smartest guy in the room in a lowbrow comedy, and he's had his share of those. Luckily, the right material does not elude him one bit here with a more indie-spirited project. As the harmless-looking but nutso Jerry, Reynolds is chillingly great, convincingly inhabiting an endearingly nebbish man with mental illness. It's a testament to Reynolds' human performance that we are still concerned for his well-being, and he should continue to work within the dark, off-kilter parameters he proves to be so capable. As pricelessly voiced by Reynolds, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are the source of much of the comedy (the latter with a Scottish accent). Same goes with Gemma Arterton's Fiona as a talking severed head who cheerily greets Jerry, gets fed cereal on the kitchen counter, and demands Jerry to bring her a "friend" for company. Finally, Anna Kendrick is her perky and adorably sweet self as Lisa, an innocent character whom the viewer cares about.

Sensitively caring about Jerry and his mental illness but never afraid to make one uncomfortable, "The Voices" is both wonderfully warped and tragic. Right before the film could succumb to predictability, the film caps everything off with the biggest flight of fancy of all, a bananas, cheerfully bizarre musical number of The O'Jays' "Sing a Happy Song" with an appearance by Jesus Christ no less. It just needs to be seen to be believed. With the instantaneous makings of a cult item, "The Voices" surely won't vanish from anyone's head anytime soon as it memorably decapitates the head of normalcy and stuffs it in the freezer.

Grade: B +

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