The latest from Kevin Smith signals something of a return to form and a bit of a surprise. After all this was the man who felt so dejected by the film biz that he pretty much checked out after his mixed, “self-published” effort, Red State (2011), and retreated into various cultish, fan-adoring safe havens—podcasts and AMC’s tedious Comic Book Men. Of course, Smith’s sloppy commercial outings preceding Red State—Cop Out and Zack and Miri Make a Porno—probably had something to do with it, too. That all said, the one thing about Smith that’s always been consistent beyond his whiny mewling, has been his snarky resilience—and that’s a good thing, because Tusk, despite being the WTF film event of the year, pays dividends for those with acquired tastes.
The film, a hefty slab of comedy atop a serial killer thread, alleges to be based on “actual events.” Those being that Smith got his hands on a posting by a lonely older seafarer in Canada who was offering free room and board for anyone willing to hang out and wear a walrus suit for a few hours a day. On-air, the quirky post got spun into a plot brainstorming session which in turn launched the social media campaign, #WalrusYes. The response not only birthed Tusk, but, purportedly, a whole True North trilogy to go with—or offset—Smith’s breezy Jersey assemblage (Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy).
Which brings us to Wallace Bryton (Apple pitchman Justin Long), an arrogant shit who co-hosts the wildly popular Not-See Party (Nazi, get it?) podcast, which essentially showcases stupid human tricks. Wallace’s latest endeavor sends him off to the Great White North to interview the “Kill Bill Kid” (a Tarantino fan who accidentally took off his leg with a samurai sword), but things don’t quite work out, and as a result, Wallace answers that “posting,” hoping the old coot has some tales of outré to entertain. The eccentric recluse in question, Howard Howe (scene chewer Michael Parks) lives in a big stately manse in the middle of nowhere and is confined to a wheelchair, but after one cup of “delicious” tea, it’s Wallace who finds himself in the wheelchair.
It’s here that we depart from most anything that’s ever been affiliated with Kevin Smith and move dangerously close to The Human Centipede and Boxing Helena territory. Beyond saying that a surgical metamorphosis takes place, I won’t detail anymore about Wallace’s ordeal, other than, for being such a raging asshole, he does in fact earn our sympathies by the end—a real tribute to both Smith and Long for making such a trick work. And thankfully. too, Smith does what Kevin Smith does, which is some droll situational shenanigans that become the lite in the darkness, such as the flashback to Wallace receiving a send-off blow job from his girlfriend (Génesis Rodríguez) that never quite has a happy ending (think of snow balling in Clerks) or Wallace’s arrogant ignorance about the significance of hockey in Canada when talking to a customs officer. Other small details like Haley Joel Osment (now filled out and frat boy-esque) as Wallace’s co-host who more than watches over Wallace’s girl while he’s away, add layers beyond the pat macabre plot driving Tusk. The biggest left-field change-up however, (and at this point in the media spin, no longer a giveaway) comes in the form of a heavily mustached Johnny Depp as Guy Lapointe, an alcoholic ex-homicide detective haunted by the specter of Howe’s past victims. The performance is more Canadian Columbo or Inspector Clouseau than Brad Pitt’s tormented dick in Se7en—and it appears that Mr. Lapointe will be back in Smith’s next True North installment, Yoga Hosers.
All these pieces—Long’s wide performance, Smith’s deft little ditties (including the use of the very Fleetwood Mac song you’d expect) and Depp’s delirious cameo—work solidly on their own, but when sewn together, garish seams and ugly staples often disrupt the confluence. It’s as if Smith made two movies with some of the same crossover characters and created a third in the editing room. The securing anchor through it all however is Parks, taking a slice-thin role and turning it into a fully seasoned hock. There’s no hesitation in his descent into the weird. He submerges and becomes. Tusk’s other great asset is the fantastic special effects and makeup work by longtime movie vet Robert Kurtzman.
Tusk is indeed far from Smith’s beloved mall and convenience store, but it does bare enough of the director’s irreverent snark and cynicism to make long-suffering Smith aficionados sing, or at least bark like a tooth-walking seahorse.
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Génesis Rodríguez, Haley Joel Osment
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.