Tone-Deaf (Movie Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: Olive (Amanda Crew), a millennial malcontent coping with a break-up, job loss and suicidal father retreats to the country for some much needed R&R. One problem. When she arrives, she’s taunted and preyed upon by Harvey (Robert Patrick), a psychotically demented Baby Boomer.

REVIEW: Of his movies I’ve seen thus far, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. seems to have a knack for accurately titling his films. Indeed, TRASH FIRE was nothing short than a smoldering garbage blaze, and while certainly way more enjoyable across the board, his new hit-or-miss horror comedy TONE-DEAF is an equally on-point descriptor for a movie that can’t quite decide which polar tenor to reverberate. On one side of the coin, the trenchant thematic tug-of-war between spoiled millennials and resentful old-timers is perceptively presented and at times mordantly hilarious. On the other however, this very generational clash is taken to such histrionic heights of abject horror that the movie can’t quite find sturdy enough footing on a compelling middle-ground. Is it a satire? A cautionary tale? A pointed finger on the pulse of current cultural anxieties experienced in modern-day America? Is it meant to be all three wrapped up in one? I can’t tell, and frankly neither does Bates seem to. Thankfully, the central performances by Crew and Patrick are strong enough and Bates’ direction aplomb enough to, for much of the duration, atone for the atonal arrangement through sheer entertainment value. TONE-DEAF may be just that, but it’s still slightly worthy of sight when it slides into select theaters Friday, August 23rd.

The film opens with a flashback to a piano recital years prior. Olive, a young pianist who cannot play a lick (hence the title) receives an unworthy ovation, while her father Michael (Ray Wise) hangs himself to death backstage. In the present, adult Olive (Crew) resides in Los Angeles, where she no longer plays piano. She loses her job at a trendy tech company before her boring boyfriend breaks up with her for a younger girl. At the insistence of her girlfriend Lenore (Hayley Marie Norman), Olive decides to leave town and, despite having lost her income, spend $500 for a weekend stay at a secluded country home. Her renter is a crusty old codger named Harvey (Patrick), who recently lost his longtime wife, also to suicide. Harvey has been told he’s losing his mind to dementia by those around him, including his son Ethan (Shane Brady), and he resides in a large abode with old family friend Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles). Whether clinically demented or not, Harvey makes the conscious decision to take out his grief-fueled resentments on everyone who dare cross his path, with special punishment reserved for the soft, spoiled, easily offended millennials who’re unwilling to get their hands dirty and sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their family, if not their country.

This resentful sentiment, however aggrieved and wrongheaded, is reinforced through a series of fourth-wall busting, direct-to-cam addresses where, in full on Edward Norton 25TH HOUR style, Harvey rants and raves through one seething hateful screed after another, each impugning the collective character of whiny, tech-addicted Gen-Yers without a hint of irony that himself has become grossly outmoded in an overly PC No Country For Old Men. These outbursts are handled with a light touch of levity, which helps offset the more outrageous bouts of violent terror when Harvey finds a tomahawk and goes on an oddly cathartic slashing spree. Patrick is commanding as always, and really stands out in a particular scene where he tearfully feigns dementia in order to trick a stranger into letting him into his motel room, only to erupt in violent anger moments later. And while Amanda Crew is impossible not to like and fully root for as Olive, a character far more fascinating than the one she played in recently in ISABELLE mind you, it is the subtextual space where the ideological clash between baby boomers and millennials is most substantive.

But again, Bates Jr. seems to have trouble deciding what he wants the film to be or what he wants to say in the end. By the time the third act unspools, the movie has zigzagged from a competently crafted thriller to a comedic socio-satire and back without a very smooth transition. The visual direction isn’t the issue, as Bates has a deft grasp on how to lens his action. The performances aren’t the problem either, as the aforesaid lead actors acquit themselves more than well enough to keep the movie entertaining. No, it’s the tonal inconsistencies in the screenplay that show themselves as the major flaws come time for the finale. Because salient points are made on both sides of the generational argument, all we’re left with in the end is an unnecessarily grisly clash of lifestyles, neither of which triumphs ideologically so much as physically. Or existentially, I suppose. Either way, it’s hard to celebrate the punishment of Harvey the old-timer when Bates has just as much fun roasting a Jerga-wearing hipster-kid named Uriah (Johnny Pemberton) who Olive’s dippy mother Crystal (Kim Delaney) is banging in her trailer. No joke. It appears as if Bates is an equal opportunity offender here, leaving us scratching our head as to what the entire point of it all is.

Still, a steady scratch of the head has rarely been so entertaining. Bates Jr. certainly learned his lesson and redeemed himself after TRASH FIRE, which I recall being a miserably unpleasant experience to sit through. On the contrary, TONE-DEAF may suffer from its title description, but is never a chore to get through or even long enough at 82-minutes to overstay its welcome and become painfully dull. It warrants a watch for its persuasive performances, adroit direction and topical cultural quarrel between old and new.

Source: Arrow in the Head

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.