Director: Kevin Smith
Stars: Justin Long, Michael Parks
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Tusk” is almost what you’d expect from a Kevin Smith rip-off of “The Human Centipede”— “almost” because perhaps you can’t imagine such a beast. Like the monster its version of a mad scientist wants to create — and, oh yes, it’s about a man (Michael Parks) trying to turn a podcaster (Justin Long) into a walrus — it’s a Frankenstein creature about a Frankenstein creature, a mesh of parts that don’t fit together. It’s a vomit-worthy piece of body horror with Canada jokes; a study of the dehumanization of man with BJ talk; a movie that features both creepy character actor extraordinaire Parks and a giggling Haley Joel Osment.
Also like its villain, it’s intriguing because of its bold, brazen weirdness. “Red State,” his last, found Smith leaving behind his two biggest traits: jokes and language that drunkenly wobbles between brows low and high. Comedy is back in full force here, even though this is…to a degree serious too. Long plays Wallace, who runs a hit show where he and his pal (Osment) find weird losers on the Internet and make fun of them. When his latest prey — a kid who did the “Star Wars” viral video but with a “Kill Bill”-sharp samurai sword, resulting in a lost leg — winds up killing himself, he finds a back-up: Howard Howe (Parks), an ex-seafarer who promises him tales of “Ernie” Hemingway and other goodies. Instead Howard drugs Wallace and starts turning him into his favorite marine mammal.
Surprise is “Tusk”’s biggest weapon. At just about every turn it’s not clear which direction this will go. Will it go full-walrus? Will the ending be funny or tragic? Exactly how long will these scenes with Johnny Depp, semi-recognizable as a nutty investigator with a Dorf accent, go on? (In its extra-chatty, even for Smith, scenes and use of long, unexpected flashbacks — as well as the presence of Parks — Smith seems to be doing his version of a Tarantino film.) Smith has never been a technically proficient director, and his shagginess has been (for his fans, anyway) his charm. Not only does “Tusk” look good (or at least competent, which is good for Smith), it has a weird confidence, even if Smith uses that confidence to barrel through a schizophrenic tone as though it was normal.
Indeed, that tone puts us constantly on edge. Scenes with Wallace and Parks blabbering in flowery-profane Smith-speak lull us into a comfort zone, which is then severely undercut by something horrific that makes us question its sanity (and sometimes taste). Perhaps one significant scene didn’t need to be undermined by Smith cueing up the coke-fueled titular song by Fleetwood Mac, but Smith did it anyway. Even Howard’s plan seems like a nonsequitur and it plays like a joke. “We’re going to answer an age-old question,” he calmly explains to Wallace. “Is man indeed a walrus at heart?” (Was that Heidegger or Foucault?) But he’s serious, and so is Smith. Or rather, Smith wants to have it both ways: He’s both joking and not joking. Smith is constantly demanding his audience wonder how to handle his scenes — challenging us to figure out if it’s more appropriate to laugh or to recoil in horror or some mixture of the two.
In fact, if anything it goes too serious. “Red State” wasn’t just pessimistic and tough; it was cynical. It betrayed something in Smith’s id that one can sometimes detect in the way he deals with press, detractors and even his fans: an actual contempt for humanity. It’s there in “Tusk” too. Wallace isn’t meant to be a likeable character; a flashback shows him bragging about having turned from a nice guy loser into a wealthy Internet celebrity whose job is being a heartless asshole. But no one else is much better. Even the most sympathetic character — Wallace’s wet blanket girlfriend Ally — has a skeleton in her closet. The humor in “Tusk” — or in any Smith film — is meant to distract us from the bleakness of Smith’s worldview. But the humor here is sour, even crass, and not in a good way, as witness the joke about the suicide of the viral star — based on a person who suffered actual depression due to being laughed at by the entire world. This look into Smith’s head is every bit as fascinating as its tale ofa pretty boy actor being turned into a man-walrus.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge