There was once a time when a new Kevin Smith project was cause for genuine excitement and curiosity, with the indie filmmaker churning out a steady stream of clever comedies in the ’90s, beginning with his breakout effort Clerks. But starting with the 2010 turkey Cop Out, Smith’s flicks have become less and less impressive, and his downward spiral continues with 2014’s Tusk, a movie based on a random conversation from one of Smith’s many podcasts. Smith evidently wanted to craft an earnest, Cronenbergian body horror movie in the vein of The Human Centipede about a guy transforming into a walrus, but he does not quite have the skill to get there. Rather than an earnest, honest-to-goodness, bad yet incredible find of a gem, Tusk is a slickly-produced, highly calculated attempt at factory-building an artificial version of what amounts to found art. Amusing schlocky horrors need to happen by accident – fake versions like this simply do not work. At the beginning of his career, Smith compensated for lack of budget and style by writing sparkling dialogue and engaging comedic vignettes, but now he creates polished, crisp visuals supplemented by shoddy writing.
A podcaster, Wallace (Justin Long) and partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) run the Not-See Podcast, which celebrates and mocks viral videos and eccentric people. Seeking to interview a peculiar young man who recently became internet famous, Wallace travels to Canada, but finds that he’s too late. Scrambling to make something of the expensive trip, Wallace spies an ad in a men’s room which piques his interest, and travels to the middle of nowhere to meet enigmatic raconteur Howard (Michael Parks). Before long, Howard drugs Wallace, handicapping him to prevent him from escaping the estate. As it turns out, Howard has plans to turn his victim into a kind walrus from his past. But Wallace’s disappearance soon attracts the attention of Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend, Allison (Genesis Rodriguez), who travel to Canada and enlist the help of a private detective (Johnny Depp) to find their friend.
Like Red State, Tusk is more effective in its early stages. The story’s set-up works to some extent, and there are notable scenes bolstered by the stylish photography which makes terrific use of shadows. It would seem that Smith was endeavouring to prove that he can be a legitimate filmmaker, taking the patently ludicrous concept with a straight face…for a little while. Smith eventually shift gears to settle into a more comedic, screwball tone, and this is a big problem – the comedy falls completely flat (which is hugely alarming in a Kevin Smith movie), and it does not successfully coalesce with the dour, gritty horror tone. It’s all over the shop. And even though the photography is incredibly slick throughout the first two acts, the entire enterprise is still rather bland overall. Smith’s attempt at generating chilling horror amounts to a lot of indulgent chatter and plenty of grimness – but it’s not especially scary, nail-biting or even chilling. Rather, it’s just pretty fucking dour.
Impossibly, the biggest problem here is Depp, who sneaks his way into the project to place forth his most insufferably grating performance to date. Quirky characters is Depp’s modus operandi, but he’s way out of his depth here, with a faux French(?) accent and exaggerated mannerisms growing incredibly annoying, as if he were the retarded brother of Inspector Clouseau. (A scene of Depp interacting with Parks, who disguises his voice, goes on too long and made me want to hit the mute button.) Oddly, Smith’s entire filmmaking style suddenly changes with Depp’s introduction, giving over to campy, oddball theatrics (scored to Fleetwood Mac, of all things) rather than the patient, quietly sinister atmosphere that Smith was apparently aiming for in the first half. Worse, the final scene tries to add some profundity to the proceedings, but it’s enormously ineffective.
When Smith finds a thespian that he likes, he hangs onto them for dear life, with Parks leaning on exactly the same style of acting which characterised his Red State appearance. But just like Red State, Smith is so enamoured with Parks’ monologues that he simply must let the man talk and talk to no end. Tusk runs 100 minutes, but it could have easily been trimmed to 80 minutes if only Smith was more disciplined towards Parks (and Depp, for that matter, whose introductory scene also drags on past its natural closure point).
Credit is due, though, to the astounding make-up effects, with Long convincingly turned into a sea creature as a result of some gruesome surgery. Long sells the hell out of the material, with his incredible ego showing through in the early stages as a podcaster with legions of fans before becoming outright terrified as he falls into Howard’s hands. And as a walrus? Long does well. The rest of the cast hit their marks effectively enough, with a now grown-up Osment borderline unrecognisable as Wallace’s partner in crime. Ultimately, however, Tusk is a big swing and miss. Smith had announced that he was going to produce Clerks 3 before retiring from the filmmaking business because he does not feel he has any talent, but Tusk reignited something, and now he seems determined to further tarnish his reputation. Tusk is the beginning of a “Canada Trilogy” for Smith, with other entries set to land over the next few years. Whatever Smith is trying to get out of his system, I just hope he does it quickly.