Since no one gets to dislike anything in a public venue without drawing accusations of being a “hater,” I feel compelled to unpack my Kevin Smith bona fides:
I included “Chasing Amy” in my book “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men” despite the divisive opinions that comedy sparked in the LGBT community. I defended “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” as a step forward for queer humor when the film was being pilloried by GLAAD. I’ve insisted for years that Smith’s as-yet-unreleased cut of “Jersey Girl” is both moving and hilarious, featuring a stellar Jennifer Lopez performance that stands alongside her work in “Out of Sight.” I even appreciated “Cop Out” for the harmless 1980s throwback it was clearly meant to be.
Smith might not be the most visually-minded of filmmakers, but his wit and his take on the world has always been unique, couching a genuinely sweet sensibility among the fart jokes and pushing the limits on verbal ribaldry and conversations about sex and sexuality of all stripes.
So now, can we talk about “Tusk,” a horror-comedy of head-scratching bafflement? It’s not even that the film shifts wildly in tone as much as the fact that none of those tones work at all: the horror parts aren’t scary and, surprisingly for Smith, the comedy bits aren’t funny.
When it was over, I was reminded of Bill Murray‘s writer character in “Tootsie,” who wanted audience members to come up to him weeks later to say, “I saw your play — what happened?” If that’s the response Smith was going for, I give him an ‘A’ for effort, but “Tusk” remains a bizarrely unsatisfying mishmash.
Justin Long (who had a hilarious bit in Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) stars as podcaster Wallace, who does an obnoxious online show with pal Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) called “The Not-See Party.” (Cue lots of labored jokes about the podcast’s labored title.)
Over the protests of his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), who thinks internet fame is going to his head, Wallace travels to Canada to interview a viral video star: a teenager who accidentally chopped off his own leg with a samurai sword while trying to imitate moves from “Kill Bill.”
Wallace arrives to find that the kid has killed himself, but not wanting to waste the trip, he starts hunting for other oddballs with a story to tell. A flyer on a bathroom wall leads him way out of town to interview Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who has many tales to share from his years as a seafarer. The brash and obnoxious Wallace fails to notice that his tea has been drugged, however, and he wakes up to an alarming discovery about Howard’s true intentions.
As Howard begins doing unspeakable things to Wallace, all the while telling him about how a walrus in the Black Sea was the only creature ever to show him any kindness, Teddy and Ally begin the search for their friend, which brings them into contact with Quebecois private investigator Guy LaPointe (played by a big-time, pseudonymous movie star who is close to unrecognizable here thanks to a fake nose and a ludicrous French-Canadian accent).
There are almost no moments in “Tusk” that would suggest this wasn’t someone’s first feature. The jokes are oversold, the actors are often doing too little or way, way too much, and even the lighting (from cinematographer James Laxton, “For a Good Time, Call…”) feels, at best, improvised.
On the heels of “Red State,” it would appear that this stage of Smith’s career is marked by both an interest in horror and a love of the sound of Michael Parks‘ voice. The lengthy sermon the actor delivers in the previous film got cut down massively after its Sundance debut, but here the writer-director gives Parks another opportunity go on, and on, at length. Parks is a fine performer with a talent for drawing you in, but Smith allows him to wear out his welcome.
The LaPointe scenes are especially excruciating, trying hard to emulate Peter Sellers’ Clouseau character. A lengthy exchange between LaPointe and Howard (the latter doing a silly voice) feels deadly, especially when the phrase “Poutine-y Weenie” is repeated over and over again. (And that’s about the level of the “Isn’t Canada hilarious?” jokes on display here.)
No one can accuse Smith of playing it safe — he’s strayed far from the man-child comedies that originally cemented his reputation (and inspired successors like Judd Apatow), and “Tusk” certainly doesn’t offer the kind of plot that makes for easy or familiar summarization. Still, as cinematic experiences go, this is one dead mackerel.