Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In Theaters: TUSK (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy LaPointe, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Jennifer Schwalbach. (R, 107 mins)

Since becoming one of the iconic faces of the '90s indie cinema explosion, Kevin Smith has spent the better part of the last decade trying to find a niche as a filmmaker ambling into his 40s. His 2004 film JERSEY GIRL got caught up in the post-GIGLI, "Bennifer" backlash. 2006's CLERKS II was a likable if unnecessary sequel, and 2008's ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO was accused of being a Judd Apatow ripoff. After parting ways with Harvey Weinstein and dropping his View Askew production banner, Smith helmed the laughless Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop comedy COP OUT (2010) and self-released the ambitious but not always successful thriller RED STATE (2011), a complete departure from his previous work that found him taking aim at the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church. Smith spends a lot of time on speaking engagements and his SMODCAST podcast, which led him to make his latest, the horror film TUSK. In the SMODCAST episode titled "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Smith and producer Scott Mosier were pranked by a classified ad that involved someone getting free room and board if they dressed like a walrus. They spent an hour of the "Walrus" episode batting around hypothetical ideas and at the end, Smith asked listeners to tweet "#WalrusYes" if he should make the movie and "#WalrusNo" if he shouldn't.  Of course, "#WalrusYes" won out and now we have TUSK.

Shot in quickie fashion in a mere two and a half weeks in November 2013, TUSK may not have the shitty special effects of a SHARKNADO, but it's still every bit as much of a prefab cult/midnight movie and Smith should be smart enough to know that true cult movies aren't conceived as cult movies. Like any of the SyFy or Asylum silliness, TUSK would make a much better two-and-a-half minute fake trailer than an hour-and-45-minute movie. Obnoxious podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) co-hosts the raunchy and offensive THE NOT-SEE PARTY with his best friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment). Their premise is that Wallace goes around and gathers stories and conveys them to the travel-phobic Teddy, who refuses to leave Los Angeles, a podcast premise about as flimsy as that of TUSK.  Anyway, Wallace is heading to Winnipeg to interview "The Kill Bill Kid," a viral video sensation who sliced off his own leg with a sword while doing half-assed martial arts moves in his garage. Wallace arrives at the guy's house only to find that his and Teddy's constant podcast mockery has driven the man to suicide. Hoping it's not a wasted trip, Wallace does some snooping around and finds a flyer advertising free room and board to anyone who listens to the homeowner's tales of seafaring adventure. The old sea salt is Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of Hemingway and quotes from Coleridge and a long, emotional story about how his life was saved by a friendly walrus after a shipwreck. Wallace realizes too late that Howe has drugged him. When he wakes up, he's missing a leg as Howe reveals his ultimate plan: he misses his walrus friend--dubbed Mr. Tusk--so much that he's going to surgically reconfigure Wallace's body and sew him into a suit, allowing him to go "full walrus" and keep him captive in a secret basement aquarium.

The idea of a walrus-obsessed psycho going balls-out HUMAN CENTIPEDE on a self-absorbed hipster dipshit has endless possibilities for dark humor and the macabre, but Smith is plowing through this thing so quickly that there's no focus. The whole film is obviously a tossed-off goof for Smith, though admittedly, seeing Wallace's hipster mustache being used for walrus whiskers is hilarious. Smith gets a good amount of credible menace from Parks, who's enjoyed a busy cult rebirth since a Quentin Tarantino rescue mission led to his being cast as grumbly Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in the opening sequence of Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). Now 76, Parks has an inherently off-kilter speaking and acting style that wasn't fully appreciated in his youth, but guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Smith, and especially Jim Mickle in the 2013 remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, have made good use of him in his elder statesman years. Smith cast Parks as a deranged, Fred Phelps-inspired evangelical madman in RED STATE, and TUSK gives the veteran actor his meatiest role in years, waxing rhapsodic about the sea, whiskey, women, and yes, walruses. But a little of it goes a long way, and once Long's Wallace is surgically mutilated, his tongue removed, and the femurs in his legs shaped into walrus tusks, the film has pretty much made its point and played all of its batshit cards but still has nearly an hour to go.

Much of that second hour is devoted to, and completely derailed by, the arrival of Quebecois private eye Guy LaPointe, played by one Guy LaPointe. It's a mystery guest star, and since the cat's pretty much out of the bag and a visit to TUSK's IMDb page spoils it anyway, LaPointe is actually a cross-eyed, chain-smoking Johnny Depp, sporting a beret, a wig, a fake goatee, and the most intentionally ridiculous French accent this side of Pepe Le Pew. Looking like a homeless, meth-addled Inspector Clouseau, LaPointe assists Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy in their search when Wallace manages to leave frantic voice mails for them. LaPointe has been pursuing serial killer Howe, the latest in a long line of false identities, for years, estimating that he's killed and dismembered 23 people.  Depp only worked on the film for two days at the very end of the shoot, which was more than enough time for Smith to let him completely run rampant with his grab-bag of affectations, ad-libbing and rambling on endlessly, especially in a painfully tedious flashback scene where he actually meets Howe. There's been much evidence of late to suggest that audiences are getting bored with Depp and his mannered performances, and while he's only in the last 30 or so minutes of TUSK, he's a key factor in it stopping dead in its tracks. That's also on Smith, who gets a dread-filled momentum going in the relationship between Howe and the transformed Wallace and steers it straight into a ditch by being far too accommodating with Depp's worst tendencies as the increasingly hammy actor seems hellbent on fast-tracking it to the Nic Cage self-parody phase of his career.

Scenes of Howe and the walrusified Wallace swimming together, Howe singing to Wallace, and the climactic battle between Wallace and a walrus-costumed Howe set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" are the kind of things that belong in a fake trailer. Character development is sketchy--we learn through periodic cutaways that Wallace is a cheating asshole who probably loves Ally but can't resist the "road head" that his travels offer--and Rodriguez has a very good scene where she delivers a long monologue, spilling her feelings about Wallace directly to the camera, but it belongs in another movie. The more TUSK goes on, the more it starts to resemble the kind of prank that inspired it in the first place, like something its maker never really thought through or didn't fully understand how to approach. An unsettling, Cronenberg-ian body-horror film could've been made here, but instead, Smith opted for a self-indulgent home movie that only he and his buddies find funny. TUSK barely hangs together and it's a coin flip whether this or COP OUT is Smith's worst film, but everyone here apparently had so much fun that they're reconvening in his action comedy YOGA HOSERS, due out next summer, with Depp unfortunately returning as Guy LaPointe, which I don't see becoming his next Jack Sparrow.

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