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Tusk (Movie Review)

Tusk (Movie Review)
09.17.2014by: Eric Walkuski
5 10

PLOT: An obnoxious podcaster travels to Canada in search of his latest person to exploit when he's waylaid by an old adventurer who has many stories to tell and a troubling penchant for walruses.

REVIEW: You know how some people take the time to engineer their own fan edits of movies? Like, one dude has cut down STAR WARS: EPISODE ONE and removed (as best he could) all of the idiotic crap that pervades the prequel in order to give us a movie that is at least watchable? I think there's a fan edit just waiting to happen with Kevin Smith's TUSK, which flirts with greatness early on only to be thwarted by unnecessary silliness and the blasphemous inclusion of a supporting character who destroys any existing tension it has to offer. I don't know if I'm the man to tackle this fan edit, but I know I could supervise; TUSK's good moments and bad moments are so clearly delineated that entire chunks can be removed wholesale.

Following up on his semi-successful move to the darker side of things with RED STATE, which proved at least a little that he's more than just a hearty spokesman for 90s slackers and comic book nerds, Smith practices his hand at full-blown horror here, entrenching us in a film that endeavors to combine the spooky old house, mad scientist, and half-man/half-animal sub-genres. A daunting task for any director, especially one known for his plainly-shot comedies, but Smith clearly relishes his chance to tackle something different, where his knack for writing dialogue can serve a purpose other than providing wordy, raunchy laughs (he showed some flair for that with Michael Parks' considerable monologues in RED STATE and maybe a handful of moments in DOGMA). In TUSK he's able to spin quite a few chilling yarns, as well as create an atmosphere of eerie, uncomfortable dread with accomplished ease. And then he blows it.

In addition to the horror elements, Smith takes a swipe (you could say another swipe) at autobiographical honesty, presenting us with a protagonist who in several ways resembles the writer-director himself. Wallace Brighton (Justin Long) is a snarky podcaster getting rich off of advertising and selling wares with his cartoon visage on it. Along with buddy Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), he's making an unexpected killing just talking shit and telling stories to a million rabid listeners. Even AMC is thinking about making a reality show centered around him. That Wallace is a cheesy jerk who only thinks about himself is an interesting move by Smith, although it's unsure just how literally we're supposed to take this portrayal. In any case, Wallace is enjoyed for his crude, lewd way of telling tales; one of the show's main features involves Wallace traveling to different locations, rubbing elbows with whoever is most easily made fun of, and then coming back to share the story at his subject's expense.

Wallace's latest trip is to Canada (lots of easy jokes about Canada) where he's to meet with a kid who accidentally chopped off his own leg while shooting a YouTube video. Doesn't work out, the kid is dead (Wallace doesn't care) and now he needs a new story. As luck would have it, in a local bar he finds a flyer from a man named Howard Howe, who in his dying days wants to share his many tales of adventure and is looking for an inquisitive ear. An odd ad, to be sure, but potential gold for Wallace, who ventures to Howe's isolated mansion to find a wheelchair-bound old man (Michael Parks) who indeed has plenty of fascinating anecdotes, ranging from an encounter with Ernest Hemingway to enthralling remembrance of the time his ship exploded during the war, leaving him stranded on a rocky island with only a walrus ("Mr. Tusk") to call a companion. Around the moment Howe's predilection for walruses becomes creepily clear, Wallace suddenly passes out, doomed to be a prisoner of this cordial but ominous old yarn-spinner.

In these scenes between Parks and Long, Smith creates a nifty mood of unfurling foreboding, with the former's languid stories serving as signposts that his hospitality is a cover for a rather unholy experiment: Howe's obsession with walruses is so complete, and his desire to reunite with his beloved Mr. Tusk so all-consuming, that he intends to recreate the experience with Wallace serving as his Mr. Tusk stand-in. That can only be accomplished by literally turning him into a walrus, which is certainly as baffling as it sounds. Going into the movie knowing this is the central hook only increases the unnerving aura these early sequences provide, but they'd be just as compelling if you knew zilch about the plot. Smith masters the slow but steady nightmare vibe and it seems for all the world like TUSK is going to be a stunner.

But then something terribly unfortunate happens. It would appear Smith is either afraid, or unwilling, to take his concept too seriously, because TUSK in its second half becomes something of a jokey sideshow act, with the comedy that only crept on the sidelines of previous scenes dominating the proceedings. Indeed, the walrus-man Long is eventually transformed into, while startling at first sight, is not so much freaky as it is ridiculous the more you get a good look at it; perhaps this led Smith to shave away the raw edges of horror in lieu of the smartassery (new word?) he's known for. A final showdown between Long and Parks that would have seemed quite dramatic if done in the spirit of the film's first half is reduced to a joke, with Smith clearly more interested in prodding his audience for WTF laughs than anything deeper.

But the chief downfall of TUSK, at least in its third act, is the introduction of Guy LaPointe, a French-Canadian investigator enlisted by a concerned Teddy and Wallace's girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez). This is the movie's Jar-Jar Binks. LaPointe is played by a famous person in bad make-up (I won't spoil his identity here, but you can easily find out) utilizing a terrible accent, and the character does nothing less than torpedo any goodwill the movie has built up. It's hard not to fault the actor, who is essentially doing a piss-poor imitation of Inspector Clouseau and who has become something of a clown in recent years, rarely showing any of the artistic ingenuity he was once cherished for. But the lion's share of the derision should be focused on Smith for including not only a character who is so clearly unfunny and uninspired, but for stopping his movie dead in its tracks in order to fritter away 10-15 minutes on what is basically a different movie, and a terrible movie at that. What was he thinking when he decided to journey down this self-destructive path? You got me, but whatever the intention, TUSK is not at all the beneficiary.

A shame too, because all this goofiness undoes not only what Smith had accomplished in the early scenes, but it also limits the very enjoyable performances by Long and Parks, both of whom are terrific. Known for his nice guys, Long is a wholly believable prick in TUSK, but a handful of scenes hint at a softer side that has to be hidden away in order to please his followers. Parks, as we know from RED STATE (and the hundred-plus movies he's been in prior to this) is a fantastic screen presence, able to spin off long monologues without missing a beat and handily alternating between father-figure and psycho-from-hell personas with the subtlety of a seasoned vet. The two actors make for great adversaries when Smith is firing on all cylinders, but you had better enjoy the show while you can, because it doesn't stick around long.

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