Why Don’t You Ask Him If He’s Going to Stay? by Craig Schroeder
Kevin Smith is a master of on screen wish-fulfillment. The first half of his career was dedicated to making his brand the cornerstone for Generation X’s schlubby, geek-stoner populous. Tusk marks Smith’s second feature film since losing his shit, publicly grousing at film critics, openly feuding with Bruce Willis and swearing off Hollywood in general; all coming at the heels of his commercial and critical flop Cop Out. The Kafkaesque Tusk, continues Smith’s awkward celluloid wish fulfillment: Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is a comedian, podcaster and obvious Kevin Smith avatar. He has a beautiful girlfriend (who he treats like shit), is adored by unseen but oft referenced fans and–in what may be the greatest non-ironic, on-screen humble-brag of 2014–made “$100,000 in podcast advertising last year”. Oh, and the logo for Wallace’s Podcast looks nearly identical to the putrid orange and blue logo smeared across everything SModcast (Smith’s production company) related, from hockey jerseys to AMC reality programming. The first thirty minutes of Tusk presents itself as a comedy and is an utter failure. But once Smith ditches the jokes and commits to the horror, the film becomes more enjoyable. And when Wallace transforms from hip podcaster to helpless victim, the film makes a case that maybe Kevin Smith is becoming a bit more self-aware of his public persona. Maybe.
Tusk–based on a conversation from an episode of Smith’s own podcast, The SModcast–follows Wallace as he heads to Canada for a segment on his show. When his subject dies unexpectedly, Wallace is desperate for an interesting interview to salvage his trip to Manitoba. Predicated on a ridiculous coincidence, Wallace finds himself at the isolated mansion of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an eccentric hermit who has traveled the world and has an affinity for walruses, one walrus in particular, named Mr. Tusk. However, when Wallace is drugged and mutilated, it becomes clear Howard may have more than just an affinity for walruses, as he intends to transform Wallace into his own Mr. Tusk.
If it had been any other film, by any other filmmaker, the podcasting element would seem far less silly. But Smith presents it in such a self-congratulatory way, as if he himself invented podcasting, it makes it damn near unbearable. And for as much time Smith takes using Tusk to brag about his podcast prowess, he has dreamt up one of the dumber podcast ideas I’ve ever heard. Wallace’s podcast is called The Not-See Party (be prepared, because Tusk spends much of its runtime beating the audience about the head and face with that playfully anti-semitic pun), wherein Wallace goes and does something interesting and then comes back and merely explains it to his cohost, who didn’t see it. Get it? It doesn’t help that the on-air jokes (mostly about boners and sex stuff) are presented un-ironically and meant to portray Wallace as a comic genius. However, the jokes fall flat and yet Wallace’s co-host Teddy (played with full commitment from Haley Joel Osment) acting as a laugh-light at a talk show recording, cackles every time Wallace opens his mouth, prompting the audience to do the same. There are genuine laughs, but they always come juxtaposed to the terror in the film (while recording an earnest and potentially life saving voice message, Wallace screams “Please help. I don’t want to die in Canada.”) and never as a function of the film’s straight-forward comedy. The humor that works is tragic humor, a function of the film’s very nature. The humor that doesn’t is indicative of Smith’s inability to let those tragic jokes stand on their own.
For as stagnant as the jokes are, the horror in Tusk is authentic and well earned. Smith isn’t telling a totally original story: guy stumbles into a psycho’s house who has insidious plans for his unsuspecting victim. Smith seems to be a student of the genre, knowing how and when to reveal the horror in a way that makes the thing you know is coming all the more horrific once it appears. And it doesn’t hurt that Michael Parks (who also appeared in Smith 2011 film Red State) is the antagonist and takes a typical villainous arc and turns it into a character worth remembering. Parks’ Howe is given long, bizarre monologues that in the hands of a lesser actor, or one incapable of recognizing the bizarre nature of the film, would have been boring and nonsensical. But Parks makes them charming, intriguing and menacing. Though Parks is the standout, everyone in the film is fully committed to the film’s insane premise, including a bizarre cameo from a Hollywood megastar, under a nom-de-plume, that may be said star’s worst or best performance. It’s that strange.
With Tusk and Red State (which had a journey to the big screen that proved to be far more interesting than the film itself), Smith seems to want to blend his horror with other genres, specifically comedy. But in the case of Tusk, the horror and the comedy never blend well, instead both are segregated and become two parts of an unequal whole. There are flashes of brilliance in Tusk where Smith proves he can effectively weave comedy into his horror, and vise versa. But those moments seem to be an exception to the rule, and what’s left is a fun horror movie with a bevy of painful jokes, from someone who should know better.