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TUSK Review – ***

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"Are you really mourning your humanity? I don't understand. Who in the hell would want to be HUMAN?!" ()

“Are you really mourning your humanity? I don’t understand. Who in the hell would want to be HUMAN?!” (Source)

Tusk.

Fuckin’ Tusk, you guys.

What do you say about a film like this?

It takes an utterly absurd premise–an extended joke cooked up by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier on SModcast–and faithfully adapts it and carries it to its logical conclusion. It doesn’t evade the absurdity–despite the horror trappings, it’s really a comedy–but it manages to take itself just seriously enough to stay engaging for 100 minutes, even if the discursions, intentional and un-, do hamper the pace.

But with three crazy, committed performances in the most important roles, and production values which bring the story to ridiculous life, Tusk is worth seeing, worth gaping at, worth stepping back from and saying:

“Oh…they went there.”

I’m going to try really hard to avoid spoilers. I’ll set aside a special section for what must be touched upon,

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) and Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) host the podcast The Not-See Party, which focuses on eccentrics and Wallace and Teddy’s (increasingly malicious) observations on them. Wallace, despite the protests of his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), takes a trip to Manitoba to interview “The Kill Bill Kid” (basically the Star Wars Kid), but on arrival, discovers that the Kid has committed suicide. Desperate for a subject for his latest episode, he finds in a bar bathroom an ad posted by one Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who boasts of his long and fascinating life.

Wallace immediately contacts Howe and travels to his home near the town of Bifrost, where the wheelchair-bound Howe cordially receives him and begins recounting his meeting with Hemingway and his time stranded on a Siberian island, with only a walrus named “Mr. Tusk” for company. Wallace is enraptured, but passes out after drinking a cup of drugged tea provided by Howe. He awakens to discover one of his legs missing–Howe explains that he was bitten by a brown recluse and amputation was required. He also claims that all the phones in the house have been removed on the orders of the local doctor, so as not to disturb Wallace.

But Wallace is unconvinced, and Howe finally reveals that he has special plans for him. And if you haven’t guessed by now what those plans are, well…see if you can see the movie without knowing anything else.

Meanwhile, Ally, weary of Wallace’s unrepentant infidelity, has begun a relationship with Teddy, but when Wallace is able to contact them (albeit briefly), they set out after him, finding an ally in Guy Lapointe (Guy Lapointe), a Québécois detective who has been tracking a mysterious serial killer for years, and suspects Howe just might be his man…

I confess, Tusk is a hard film to really analyze. It’s a shaggy-walrus story, a film that, for better or worse, is exactly what it set out to be. It’s not really a superlative film, either; it’s essentially a riff on The Island of Dr. Moreau with a surfeit of quirky humor; it’s far from the scariest, the funniest, or the weirdest film I’ve ever seen. That’s not to say that it’s not funny and weird–it’s not scary, really, but you’ll probably be too dazed by the freakiness to mind–just…don’t expect a masterpiece.

It’s not really a film of themes, though the idea of Wallace’s fate as being a kind of karmic reversal, and the idea of man vs. beast (a fixation of Howe’s) is present, if not developed in any profound way.

Really, it’s just…what it is. It’s what it is to you, and to me, it was a madhouse, but quite a funny one.

I’m really curious as to what the Canadian response will be, since so much of the humor is rooted in Canadian stereotype. I’m not qualified to say if it’s offensive (with Kevin Smith, it’s sometimes hard to tell), but there were times when it felt forced. The immigration officer and the first policeman Ally and Teddy talk to…yeah, that just felt like a bit much.

But then we get to Lapointe. And I hadn’t planned to discuss Lapointe first among the performances, but I might as well do so now, because he is funny as hell. Part of what makes Lapointe so enjoyable is the fact that he’s actually a good detective. You’d expect this character to be a bumbler, to fuck up so Ally and Teddy, the “normal” characters, can save the day. But no, Lapointe’s wholly competent. He’s a loony, but he’s a competent loony.

And again, he’s insanely funny, telling in his rambling fashion about his pursuit of the mysterious killer, while devouring a fast food meal (he frequently alludes to his internal issues with unfazed candor), or acknowledging his debt to The Big Lebowski while discovering a vital piece of evidence. He’s a perfectly created character, who could have (and should have) been a tiresome joke, but is instead one of the film’s true high points.

A surprisingly great performance. ()

A surprisingly great performance. (Source)

But it’s Long and Parks who carry so much of the film on their backs. Long, in the initial trailers, looked damnably annoying, but in the finished film, he’s annoying only inasmuch as Wallace is; he starts out as a thoughtless, rather smug, rather crude blowhard, and yet there’s clearly more beneath the surface. Ally talks about the “old” Wallace, who was more carefree and good-natured, and suggests the “new” Wallace is mean-spirited and selfish. Long simply is Wallace; it may be typecasting, but he shows no signs of slumming.

Of course, the film turns the idea of “old” and “new” Wallace completely on its head, and the whole process of this takes Long far out of his comfort zone–but his performance never falters; he evokes fear, disgust, and rage with just the right twinkle of humor–he finds all the facets of effect in a line like “I don’t want to die in Canada”. Again, I don’t want to give too much away just yet, but Long’s performance in most of the second half must have a tremendous challenge, and he nails it.

Parks has found recent success in Smith’s recent films–he starred in Red State, which I never saw but which received praise and condemnation in pretty equal measure. In any case, he’s great here, perfectly charming and storied at first, and perfectly mad and obsessed once the facade drops. As he reveals his tragic past (in a sequence which will disturb some, though it’s entirely verbal), one might well find a certain measure of poignancy in Howe’s ambitions. I didn’t, personally, but that may have been more due to fatigue. Parks plays the role to the hilt, but even moments which could potentially go wrong (like his mockery of Wallace’s agonized howling) have a kind of crazy magnetism.

Rodriguez is fine, though the role doesn’t give her much to do (although she has a decent monologue). Osment is adequate (though it took me some time to get used to his adult face), but likewise, he really doesn’t do that much. There are no other really major characters; for me, it’s all Long, Parks, and Lapointe, and they all do just dandy.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SUPER HAPPY FUN TIME SPOILER ZONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh, man. Okay, where to start…

He’s turning him into a walrus. He turns him into a walrus. He (Howe) repents his killing Mr. Tusk for food, and has created a new Mr. Tusk out of Wallace, whom he finally challenges in a fight to the death to prove if “man is really a walrus at heart”. They fight like two guys in magnificent walrus suits (practical effects, God bless them), Wallace goes, as Smith puts it, “full walrus” and gores Howe to death just as Ally, Teddy and Lapointe arrive on the scene.

A year later, Wallace, still a walrus, lives in a wildlife preserve. Ally and Teddy visit and give him a fish to eat, and Ally weeps, telling him she loves him. We see her recounting her grandfather’s words “It is good to cry. It shows you have a soul.” Wallace, remembering this from within his odobine (is that a word?) shell, weeps bitterly. The end. It’s so fucking ridiculous, but…no cop out. You have to respect that.

oh poutine

Couldn’t find any pictures of Guy Lapointe, so here’s some poutine instead. (Source)

Oh, and Lapointe is Johnny Depp, if you didn’t already know (it’s apparently been officially revealed, but in case you hadn’t heard, I tried to keep it a secret. Anyway, it makes me love the performance all the more, because Depp really throws himself into it. If you didn’t know it was him, you might not guess. It’s easily the most fun he’s had with a role in ages (though I confess I actually liked Dark Shadows).

And yes, Long spends most of the film as a walrus. That must have been tough (I can’t imagine that suit was comfortable), but he pulls it off. And so does Parks–I swear, there really is something kind of poignant about his desire to get back to the one time in his life when everything was truly happy. Oh, and there’s a scene where Lapointe meets Howe, who’s in disguise as a bumpkin, and they have a rambling conversation about a missing hockey player. Parks is hysterical here; so is Depp, especially when he talks about poutine.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!END OF THE SUPER HAPPY FUN TIME SPOILER ZONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was once a pretty big Kevin Smith fan: at one time I had practically memorized Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and I was almost as fond of Dogma (though, to this day, I’ve never seen Chasing Amy). Then Jersey Girl came out, and I kind of lost interest; I liked what I saw of Clerks 2, but I never saw Zack & Miri, and wasn’t about to bother with Cop Out. It seemed like Smith was becoming increasingly smug and self-important, and between that and the iffy trailer, I was kind of dubious about Tusk.

But Tusk is, if not a return to form, a pretty decent piece of filmmaking in its own right. Smith has never been a great director, but his sheer audacity serves him very well here indeed. That said, he does falter, though more so as a writer than as a director. There are parts that really do drag a bit, the whole Ally-Teddy relationship subplot doesn’t really add up to anything, some of the cultural stereotypes are stretched pretty thin (as is the Not-See Party joke, though that may have been the idea), and Wallace’s ability to contact Ally and Teddy constitutes, if not a plot hole, then a rather lazy bit of writing.

Words cannot describe. ()

Words cannot describe. (Source)

That said, there are some great lines here, especially for Howe and Lapointe, and there are clever bits of business; on his way to Howe’s home, Wallace grabs a Chug-Eh-Lug, a mock-Canadian Big Gulp, which Howe thoughtfully keeps filled and at his disposal for the rest of the film. So Smith mostly does a fine job here. I’m not really complaining too much, since the film is really just a crazy lark.

James Laxton’s cinematography has some good atmospheric elements, and John D. Kretschmer’s production design has its moments (though I was hoping Howe’s weirdly grandiose mansion–how the hell did he afford that–would be more of a tour-de-force), but the real glory goes to the makeup effects by Robert Kurtzman and David Greathouse. In an age of CGI, it’s great to see some good old-fashioned practical effects, and bless these guys for giving Tusk the freak-show vibe it requires. The Academy probably won’t even sniff at them (perhaps because it’s hard to say if their work is to be judged as Makeup or Visual Effects, though in all honesty, it’s the former), but that’s their loss.

It’s late and I’m tired and I really have nothing else to say, other than Tusk is one weird film. And a fun one. Not a perfect one, not an absolute must-see, but in the wasteland that is September, I’m compelled to recommend it. You’re not likely to forget it anytime soon.

Score: 76/100

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4 thoughts on “TUSK Review – ***

  1. Reblogged this on Cinecharlie.

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