Coming to praise or critique Kevin Smith, director of Tusk, is a tricky proposition these days. Undoubtedly one of the most refreshing and impressive indie filmmakers of the 1990s—when he wrote and directed Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma in the span of six years—the filmmaker has had a huge impact on any movie lover who came of age in the last two decades.
Yet, his output in the 21st century has been so unexceptional that even the director soured on the industry and its press (including film reviewers like myself), choosing a state of perpetual semi-retirement as he transitions increasingly to being a geek showman via podcasts, tours, and other fan-outreach programs. But as a storyteller, it’s only been for the better.
As with Red State, Tusk showcases a director who hasn’t been this playful and confident in his vision for over a decade. It’s a twisted distortion of preconceived notions for the filmmaker—a movie that bends genres as much as its protagonist bends bones into walrus appendages. Essentially aiming to be a David Cronenberg-styled realization of “I am the Walrus,” Tusk feels like exactly the strange bong hit of weirdness that Smith imagined when he told the joke about a podcaster becoming a walrus on his Internet show, SModcast #259. Clearly not the type of picture that his most pronounced critics have expected from the filmmaker, it succeeds at being bizarrely ambitious in its unwholesomeness. It’s thus such a shame that these oddities obscured the far better movie hidden within.
Despite being borne out of Smith riffing with Scott Mosier, his longtime producer, friend, and fellow podcaster, about a funny idea for a horror-comedy, Tusk plays like two separate films. The first is one about a neurotic comedian named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who is a lifelong man-child and a recent podcasting success story, and the other is about the old man from the sea who wants to turn Wallace into a walrus. The latter may be the selling point, but it is the former that lingers.
As with Smith’s best films (the one-two Clerks punch, Chasing Amy), there is a sense of hyperbolic autobiography to Wallace’s podcasting career with best buddy and sidekick Teddy Craft (Hayley Joel Osment, all grown up), and his relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Ally Leon (Genesis Rodriguez). This is not to say that Smith views himself as a simpering narcissist that abuses all of his relationships in order to shame Internet fools like Long’s big screen protagonist (who also at times feels like an indictment of Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh). But much as Dante and Holden McNeil in those aforementioned Smith movies dealt with quarter-life and midlife crises while shrouded in poop jokes, Long’s Wallace also feels like a comparable artist who has found success as a golden calf for a legion of Internet fans, much at the expense of his creativity and integrity.
There are surely very few poop jokes to be found here, but the central comedic conceit of Tusk (man=walrus) feels far more distracting in its messy inanity than any snowball references.
The story kicks into gear when Wallace goes to Canada by himself, much to the chagrin of Ally and Teddy, to scare up a new Internet celebrity for his podcast. He always travels alone, because it’s easier to cheat that way, plus his friends don’t allow him to be as mean-spirited in his audio takedowns. However, when he gets to Winnipeg to interview a boy who cut his own leg off while imitating Kill Bill, Wallace is horrified to learn the kid bled out and died. So, he makes do with a strange old man who has left flyers about town in order to rent a room in a spooky old mansion in the middle of Manitoban nowhere.
The eccentric elder gentleman is a marvelously hammy Michael Parks in the role of Howard Howe, who comes off like a latter-day Robert Shaw. He’s got memories going back to meeting Ernest Hemingway during Operation Neptune (D-Day), but unfortunately for Wallace, the only event Howard wishes to recollect is the time he was stranded on a godforsaken rock for six months with only a walrus, nicknamed Mr. Tusk, to keep him company. Worse still, he wants to relive that quixotic existence with tusks and blubber by reincarnating his long-lost animal friend out of Wallace’s hide.
It will be up to audience members whether they go with the joke from there or not, plus the ensuing dark comedy shenanigans, including a nigh unrecognizable Johnny Depp as Guy Lapointe, a shady French-Canadian detective closing in on Howard Howe.
To be sure, Depp’s fleeting screentime is well used with the kind of idiosyncrasy and bit-scenery chewing that made him a fellow indie star once upon a time. The way Depp’s faux-French accent singsongs around the mutilations of bodies during his multiple exposition dumps is indeed the comic highlight of the film. Long is meanwhile given the unenviable task of having his body constricted in a human-walrus make-up job, but he still finds sympathy in sequences that play dangerously close to farce.
As a horror narrator, Smith continues to show a growing appreciation for atmosphere and palpable dread as Wallace travels from Winnipeg to the heart of blubbery darkness. Punctuating these scenes of crescendoing strangeness are the far superior non-sequential flashbacks to Wallace’s past, which whispers with promise of being Smith’s first personal story in eight years. Sadly, they are ultimately drowned out by the bombast of the premise that takes full control around the time Wallace wakes up without any legs.
Character veteran Parks has a ball during these sequences as the mad scientist who seeks to answer the question that has apparently plagued man since the dawn of time: is there a difference between man and walrus? But while Parks was allowed to be chillingly grotesque as his Fred Phelps-esque Westboro Baptist Church villain from Red State, his eared-seal fanaticism here just grows more bombastic with every scene in the misguided hope that the same joke will become as funny as it is deafening.
Tusk’s origin as a podcast giggle overhangs the entire film, and the effect is similar to when most Saturday Night Live sketches are turned into feature length movies. It’s high on ambition at being a surrealist body horror experience, but ultimately strains to hold its 102-minute running time, stumbling as its laughs land somewhere closer to the exploitative heaving of The Human Centipede. Not at a loss for creativity or originality, Tusk is one of Smith’s most personal films, but the one-trick walrus punch-line leaves the whole voyage seasick.