It has a memorably weird premise, sure, but Kevin Smith’s Tusk generally fails to be either that funny and/or scary… much less interesting.
Tusk stars Justin Long as Wallace Bryton, a successful American comedy podcaster who travels to Manitoba, Canada, in order to interview the “star” of a home video (one gone horribly wrong) that has become a viral hit. However, when things don’t go according to plan, Wallace looks to salvage the trip by finding some other bizarre and fascinatingly weird story to report on instead.
This motivates Wallace to investigate a curious, hand-written, “Seeking Roommate” letter posted by Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a mysterious old man who claims to be a well-traveled seafarer. However, shortly after meeting his interview subject, Wallace is drugged and taken hostage by the psychotic Howe – who, it turns out, has a twisted plan to transform Wallace into what he believes is the most magnificent of animals: the walrus.
Written and directed by Kevin Smith (Clerks I & II, Dogma), Tusk originated as an idea during an episode of Smith and Scott Mosier’s podcast, called SModcast, which the majority of Smith’s Twitter followers voted should be turned into an actual movie. That about sums up Tusk: an elaborate in-joke for Smith fans that has been taken out of its original context… and lost most of the stupid charm it (might’ve) had in the first place.
Tusk very much plays out as a self-conscious attempt to make a tongue-in-cheek “midnight movie,” similar to how Robert Rodriguez’ Machete films (and his Grindhouse project with Quentin Tarantino that inspired Machete) are meant to be a gleeful salute to a certain brand of cult cinema. The main problem, however, is that Smith’s approach here is far too self-conscious, resulting in a film where the shifts from camp horror to stoner comedy (and, on occasion, straight-faced melodrama) feel calculated, as opposed to being driven by mad inspiration. It has a memorably weird premise, sure, but Kevin Smith’s Tusk generally fails to be either that funny and/or scary… much less interesting.
Beyond that, in Tusk Smith still has the same weaknesses as a cinematic storyteller that have plagued him throughout his filmmaking career. For example, his Tusk script features way too many prolonged monologues and sequences of dialogue that (more than) border on self-indulgent. When in doubt, Smith moves the film’s action forward with words instead of visuals – and while his writing has been sharp enough for him to get away with that in the past, his screenplay work on Tusk is surprisingly dull-witted and bland compared to some of his previous output.
There is an interesting moral cautionary tale aspect to Tusk, which (almost) allows Smith’s creation to work as a quirky, yet dark, parable. Similarly, the film is somewhat effective at drawing from (and riffing on) classic horror movie tropes and iconography – with Parks’ well-spoken lunatic Howard Howe feeling like Smith’s version of a Vincent Price character. There are sequences where Smith and cinematographer James Laxton (For a Good Time, Call…) play on familiar horror genre imagery, but the shots tend to be a little too roughshod to work as either a serious homage or a parody (again, kind of like the movie as a whole).
During its non-horror portions, Tusk plays out as an offbeat culture clash comedy – one that features many a joke about Americans and Canadians that might have seemed more cleverly transgressive … had this movie come out in the 1990s, anyway. It’s during these segments of the film that we get some decent cameo appearances by Harley Quinn Smith (Smith’s daughter) and Lily-Rose Depp (Johnny Depp’s daughter), among others, as off-kilter Canadians. However, during the movie’s third act, we’re also introduced to a special guest star (avoid the film’s IMDb page if you don’t want to be spoiled) as a peculiar French-Canadian cop – and, frankly, they really overstay their welcome in the movie.
Génesis Rodríguez (Identity Thief) and Haley Joel Osment – who looks a bit like Smith in Tusk – show up as, respectively, Wallace’s girlfriend and podcast co-host, but the pair are, ultimately, not so interesting. No, Tusk is Long and Parks’ show, and the duo are probably the best parts of the whole movie. Long, as Wallace with his ill-advised walrus-stache (get it?), is able to switch with ease from comically obnoxious to utterly terrified and increasingly unhinged, as the movie keeps packing on the ridiculousness. Parks, as Howard Howe, is likewise fun to watch and manages to be both understated, yet pleasantly hammy all at once.
Basically, Tusk is a movie for Smith’s fans – either those who are familiar with the project’s origins (part of the original podcast is played over the film’s end credits), or those who are morbidly intrigued to watch it and find out just how twisted things get, given the movie’s setup. However, as the Machete Kills of Kevin Smith films, Tusk isn’t really worth a theater-going recommendation; you might as well wait to watch this one at home (if you’re interested).
Tusk is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes and is Rated R for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content.
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