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by Peter Sobczynski

"It's Not That Funny, Is It?"
4 stars

It was just about exactly twenty years to the day that I write these words that I first met Kevin Smith and encountered his 1994 filmmaking debut "Clerks" when both appeared at the Chicago International Film Festival. If I were to have told him then that he would conclude his first score of years as a director with a project like his latest effort, "Tusk," he would have no doubt thought that I was insane. Then again, if he were to have told me that very same thing, I would have likely had the same reaction to this ultra-bizarre horror-comedy that attempts to messily fuse his highly verbose and beyond scatological dialogue with a premise so gruesomely outrageous that it pretty much defies any sort of rational explanation. The end result is a film that is generally grotesque, oftentimes ridiculous and almost inevitably uneven but at the same time, it does contain moments of grim horror and inspired comedy and two unexpectedly strong performances that help to keep things moving along evan as it threatens to crumble under the weight of its own craziness.

Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, a mean-spirited podcaster who, as the story opens, is preparing to depart Los Angeles for Manitoba in order to interview a kid who unexpectedly became a YouTube sensation when a video of a horrible accident involving him in his garage went viral. (He is referred to as "The Kill Bill Kid" and you can probably take it from there.) Alas, when he finally arrives at the kid's house, he discovers that the interview is off for good and while trying to find something to look into so that the trip is not an entire bust, he comes across a flyer that leads him to the out-of-the-way home inhabited by one Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a garrulous, wheelchair-bound old-timer who claims to have many stories from his seafaring days and does not disappoint. He recalls the time that he spent drinking with Hemingway on a military boat just before D-Day and tells the tale of how a ship he was on sank and he was stranded on a tiny island with nothing but a walrus, whom he dubbed Mr. Tusk, for companionship.

And then. . .well, that is where the film begins to take the first of its numerous twists and turns, none of which I would dream of spoiling (and anyone interested in seeing it is advised to stay far away from any mention of it online). Suffice it to say, while attentive viewers will no doubt suspect that there is more to Howard Howe than meets the eye and that his house is just far enough away from civilization to raise any number of red flags from those who have seen their share of horror movies over the years, it is highly unlikely that they might have guessed at what he has in store for Wallace. Meanwhile, Wallace's girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcast co-host (Haley Joel Osment) make their way up north in the hopes of tracking him down and their efforts lead to a meeting with oddball Quebec detective Guy Lapointe--who plays himself, according to the credits, but whose face and manner should be recognizable to most moviegoers. He cheerfully suggests to the two that Wallace may have been taken by an elusive serial killer that he has been pursuing for years and goes into great detail of most of the depravations to be expected while wolfing down a couple of sliders.

"Tusk" was inspired by a story that Smith and co-host Scott Mosier made up one day on their podcast (which can be heard in part during the end credits) in response to a bizarre classified ad that they came across (and which, thankfully, was eventually revealed to be a hoax) and it does have the feel of a shaggy dog story, so to speak, concocted by a couple of guys trying one-up each other in the gross-out department. As an experiment in fusing together the outrageous humor that he is known for with darker and more sinister material, this is a step up from his previous like-minded genre mash-up "Red State," a film that started off as one thing but which wound up bucking itself when it made its big narrative shift. However, as someone who has admired Smith's more ambitious narratives in the past (such as "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma"), I wish he had gone through the screenplay in order to tighten things up and rid it of some of some of its more extraneous elements (such as some backstory involving the girlfriend and the co-host that goes nowhere) before putting it before the cameras. Instead, he seems to believe that the sheer weirdness of the concept will be enough to keep viewers from noticing that it never quite pulls together into a fully satisfying whole.

And yet--there is that phrase again--there is still a lot to be said for "Tusk" beyond its audacious premise. Smith's ability to write yards and yards of fast-paced, witty and intelligent dialogue continues unabated--the encounter between Wallace and a very polite Canadian border guard is a little masterpiece that plays like a classic TV sketch in the best possible way. The contributions from makeup designer Robert Kurtzman are equally impressive--for his main effect, he has been asked to produced something that will move audiences from laughter to nausea to sympathy, sometimes at the sam time, and damned if he doesn't pull it off. There are also two excellent performances here from veteran actor Michael Parks and the actor currently known as Guy Lapointe that really deserve to be noticed. Parks, who was by far the best thing about "Red State," does a brilliant job of tearing into the speeches that Smith has given him and somehow manages to demonstrate a certain empathy for his character long after it has been determined that he is completely mad. As for Monsieur Lapointe, he is played by someone who is certainly no stranger to eccentric performances and while it is definitely an indulgent turn (perhaps too indulgent at times for some people), it is one that inspires an energy and focus that has been lacking in many of his recent oddball turns.

Despite its flaws, I did sort of enjoy "Tusk" but whether or not you will feel the same is questionable. It may well prove to be too weird and/or gross for the mass audience, it will not convert any moviegoers who have been cool towards Smith's previous efforts and it is hardly the ideal entry point for those who have not yet encountered his work over the past two decades. However, Smith's loyal fan base will no doubt dig it (though some may still find themselves yearning wistfully for a return of the Smith who gave us "Chasing Amy") those with strong stomachs, broad senses of humor and a willingness to embrace the bizarre may get a kick out of it, especially if they can see it at a midnight show which might provide a more natural setting for its freak-show atmosphere--somehow, catching this film at a midday matinee showing just doesn't seem right. Regardless of when one sees "Tusk," one thing is absolutely certain--anyone who does watch it will never, ever listen to the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name in the same way again.

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originally posted: 09/19/14 09:22:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

1/02/15 SID RUMKOWSKI Disturbing, well made with a sad haunting ending. 4 stars
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  19-Sep-2014 (R)
  DVD: 30-Dec-2014


  DVD: 30-Dec-2014

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