It’s hard not to want to give Kevin Smith an “attaboy” for taking the risk with Tusk. It’s a departure for the filmmaker to be sure, an odd hybrid of comedy and horror and surrealism. It’s also terribly uneven and totally kept afloat by the performance of Michael Parks as a crazy salty dog known as Howard Howe. Parks has long been a treasure, one recently unearthed by the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Smith. Here he elevates the material in every scene he is in, sometimes despite Justin Long’s efforts to ruin them. Not intentionally of course, but the actor is out of his depth here.
Resembling Red Hot Chili Pepper frontman Anthony Kiedis with his ludicrous mustache Long plays a podcaster on the road in Canada doing a story on a young man who accidentally cut his own leg off [shown in the film’s awkward first minutes] who is forced to change his agenda when the boy dies. A shaky foundation for a story to be sure, especially when every moment the film showcases Long and Haley Joel Osment’s successful internet show reveals an unfunny and often embarrassing bit of content. Considering the film’s idea stemmed from Smith’s own popular podcast raises enough eyebrows but when married to the film’s difficult to watch fictional podcast Tusk‘s credibility is nearly scuttled. The two young actors both with impressive track records are neither funny nor engaging during the podcast segments. Luckily, when Long’s Wallace Bryton finds Howe’s number on a bathroom wall on a message promising great stories and chooses the old man as his new subject the film begins to solidify a little.
As portrayed by Parks, Howe is a verbose and mysterious man with a great balance of grit and charm. He delivers lines with a sparkle in his eye and is remarkably nimble when dealing with his blunt instrument of a guest. Parks is magnetic and before his true goal is exposed he delivers quite a few delicious bits of dialogue. As the film is called Tusk, things escalate to the point where the title makes sense. In this case Howe’s desire to recreate a seminal companionship with a walrus while trapped at sea, with his human quarry in a walrus suit. That is the plot. Wallace is drugged and tormented and Howe’s plan becomes more and more batshit crazy. The film is at its best as this uneasy bond begins with Wallace becoming less and less human as his captor subjects him to terrifying punishment.
The other side of the story is Osment’s Teddy Craft and Genesis Rodriguez’s Ally Leon realizing their friend is missing and their attempt to rescue him. At its best this subplot is watchable though much of the material falls flat. Once a cherished child actor, the adult incarnation of Osment leaves a lot to be desired and Rodriguez is given a few too many monologues whilst staring into the camera. These indulgences are expected in Kevin Smith’s older work but it prohibits Tusk from taking the filmmaker drastically forward in terms of narrative flow and style. When seen with Parks’ scenes and the third act’s inclusion of a new character named Guy Lapointe played by a very famous actor under heavy makeup these trite scenes ruin the film. As do the scenes involving Smith’s and Johnny Depp’s daughter, who apparently will serve as the leads in Smith’s next movie. Nepotism or not, it’s a bad idea.
The more things change…
As a result Tusk is an uneven misfire. It has moments of genuine creepiness, especially when Long is further along in his “transformation” and first discovers he isn’t the first person to undergo Howe’s walrus preparation. There’s a very dark undercurrent here and when the film channels Misery more than Clerks it’s quite engaging. And oftentimes disgusting. And when the “Guy Lapointe” character is introduced it becomes very funny and quirky and it makes one wonder how a few rewrites and some recasting could have improved the whole. Tusk is a film with a few great lines and a few effective scenes, unfortunately bound together in a very weak chassis. Michael Parks and the film’s not so secret movie star part of the third act are excellent. The rest is not even good. The hardcore fans may even find it too obtuse though it does showcase a bold attempt at something new. At least he tried.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars