Written & Directed by Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez & Johnny Depp
“Is man indeed a walrus at heart?” This is a question posed by Howard Howe (Michael Parks) to asshole podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) in Kevin Smith’s latest film, Tusk. I’ll be honest, I’m using the term “film” loosely. Tusk is most definitely filmed on a camera of some sort, with actors performing as fictional characters in front of it, but the term “film” implies that this is a product made by a filmmaker. In this case, I’m not entirely sure that applies.
Everyone’s favorite juvenile humor-aficionado Kevin Smith is the man behind Tusk, an idea borne out of a podcast hosted by Smith and his pal Scott Mosier. The story goes that they came across this insane classifieds ad by a man who was willing to host a lodger free of charge if he donned a walrus costume. Smith immediately turned to Twitter for thoughts from his fans on whether he should turn this kernel of an idea into a movie and sure enough, the response was positive. Smith decided to forgo his recent decision to retire as a filmmaker and went head-on into bringing Tusk to the big-screen.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to never being the biggest Kevin Smith fan. I think he’s made some fun, entertaining movies in the past, but I often find his focus on incredibly juvenile humor to be a distraction when, at their heart, his films always seem to actually be trying to say something. In his follow-up to the divisive Red State, Smith has once again set out to make a horror film of sorts, albeit this time, once again, his preference for dick jokes gets in the way of a potentially interesting story with, sure enough, something to say.
- The Visuals – Once again, much like in Red State, Kevin Smith has improved upon his much-maligned visual palette. Shot by cinematographer James Laxton, the film does a good job using its visuals to set a tone distinctly different from Smith’s other work. It’s not some of the best cinematography I’ve seen all year, but it does a nice job of giving the film its much-needed off-kilter atmosphere.
- Michael Parks – Smith reunites with his Red State star for what is definitely among Parks’ best roles. He plays Howard Howe with the sort of vicious fervor you don’t normally see from an actor his age, and the fact that we can tell Parks is having a whole lot of fun sells it that much more. He spits out every line of dialogue as if it’s the last thing he’ll ever say. He shines most notably in his one on one scenes with Justin Long as his mind slowly becomes unhinged. Here’s hoping Long took notes.
- The Showdown Scenes – As I said above, Parks particularly shines when up against Long’s obnoxious podcaster, so it should come as no surprise that the best sequences in the film pit these two unique creations up against one another. From their initial meeting in which Howe regales Wallace with tales of his sea-bound encounters with Ernest Hemingway to a dinner scene in which Howe’s grotesque intentions finally become clear, Smith does a good job of keeping the tension simmering. Without Parks at his disposal, Smith could have easily lost the audience in these rather lengthy scenes, but thankfully Parks ratchets up the crazy to incredible entertaining effect, while Long does a good job of making us feel his character’s absolute terror.
- The Script – Easily the weakest aspect of the film, Smith’s insistence on including his requisite raunchy jokes makes the script an absolute tonal mess. For the first 15 minutes or so, I was seriously questioning my decision to pay money for this big-screen experience. Thankfully the film eventually shifts into much more compelling territory, but the dick jokes and pop culture references are never too far away. Even Smith’s signature strength, his dialogue, suffers a much worse fate than even I could have expected. Sure, there are some wonderfully written monologues that Parks gets to deliver, but I had a hard time not cringing at every other sentence coming out of Justin Long’s mouth. Honestly, the film would have been much better off had Smith decided to make it a straight-up horror film, rather than feel the need to pander to his already committed fanboys.
- It’s Not Scary, Nor Is It All That Funny – Now look, I love a good horror-comedy as much as the next guy (in fact, it’s my favorite horror genre), but the thing about horror-comedies is that if they’re not meant to be scary, they have to make up for it with their humor. The thing about Tusk is it doesn’t know what it wants to be, and therefore isn’t particularly funny, nor is it scary. Sure, the shock of seeing Justin Long in full-on walrus form is pretty damn funny, but the rest of the sequences featuring “Mr. Tusk” don’t really lead the audience in one direction or another: we don’t know how to feel. There are some interesting concepts that Smith brings up throughout, about humanity and the nature of man, but he never fully explores any of them and worse yet, he doesn’t appear to know how to explore them.
- The Johnny Depp Factor – Easily the strangest aspect of the film (and trust me, that’s saying something) is the presence of one Johnny Depp (yes, he’s in this) as a French-Canadian inspector named Guy Lapointe. The second half of the film mostly revolves around Lapointe, who is introduced in rather ridiculous fashion while chowing down on some fast-food. Now, no, I’ve never been the biggest Johnny Depp fan, but here he seems a good enough fit as a weird and ridiculous detective who appears to have just wandered in from the set of some other movie. Depp’s not really the problem, it’s the character that’s the problem. Why Kevin Smith thought it was a good idea, after setting up a rather intriguing, horrific world centered on Howard Howe and “Mr. Tusk”, to introduce a bumbling, Pink Panther-esque detective on which to focus the second half of the film is absolutely beyond me. Yes, Depp is pretty damn fun in the role and there’s a sequence where he is pitted against Parks that has to be seen to be believed, but WHAT IS THE FREAKING POINT?! Smith’s most likely answer: “I was just having fun man”.
Tusk is honestly unlike any movie I have ever seen, and trust me, I’ve seen plenty. It’s a tonal mess, doesn’t really know what kind of movie it wants to be, and features Justin Long as a freaking walrus, but I’ll be honest with you, I was entertained. It’s not a good film, nor is it one that I can say I have an immediate inkling to go see again, but it’s certainly an interesting one. There are sequences in it that are absolutely among the best Kevin Smith has ever done, and then they’re immediately followed by some of the worst stuff he’s ever done. Johnny Depp eats sliders and Haley Joel Osment plays an “adult” in the course of the same movie. Well, I’ve never seen that.
Kevin Smith is a filmmaker, I guess. He makes films, sure, but I don’t think he’s ever made one as much of an inside joke as this one is. Throughout Tusk‘s running time, I had a hard time understanding how I was supposed to feel at any given point. I was never really sad, scared, all that amused, but I was strangely entertained. “Is man indeed a walrus at heart?” I have no clue, and I don’t think the film, nor Kevin Smith, knows either. None of us have the answer, and well, in this case, maybe we should be thankful.