Your enjoyment of Tusk depends upon three things: (1) How much you like Kevin Smith, (2) Your ability to navigate glaring shifts in tone, and (3) how high your Johnny Depp tolerance meter is able to rise. I like Smith, I can handle abrupt changes in tone as long as a movie doesn’t shift between more than 2-3 genres, and I discovered that I was able to tolerate Johnny Depp’s antics a hell of a lot more than I thought I would be able to. Did you not know he was in the movie? Sorry if I spoiled it but almost every single review has mentioned his presence. I imagine if you’re a fan, you’ll be pleased by this news and if you hate him (as I thought I did), this will probably be sufficient enough info to make you stay away. Depp is not terrible here though and his performance fits Tusk because it doubles as a description for the movie as a whole: it’s bat-shit crazy, but mostly in a good way.
The story is simple. Justin Long plays an obnoxious podcaster who gets turned into a walrus by a crazy man (Michael Parks). And that’s pretty much it. Smith lets the insanity of that premise carry the whole movie and, for the most part, it works. He runs into problems with scenes that are completely unnecessary and only serve to drag out the running time. He also never quite decides if he wants this to be a horror film, a comedy, or a ‘man-this-shit-is-fucked-up movie’. It works well when living in the horror and ‘fucked up’ genres and less when it tries too hard to be funny. Still, I was never bored and found the whole thing strangely watchable. It’s not a great movie, but it is different and that’s a rare enough thing these days to be treasured no matter how stupid you think the premise is.
The move starts off completely on the wrong foot, so wrong in fact that I almost wanted to get up and leave the theater. We are introduced to Long and his partner, inexplicably played by Haley Joel Osment. They run a podcast called the ‘Not-See Party’ (shrug) and specialize in finding weird people to mock and interview. Their first subject is a viral video called ‘The Kill Bill Kid’ which shows a pudgy boy with glasses doing terrible things with a sword in his garage. All of this is groan worthy. The Star Wars Kid is beyond old news now and spoofing him makes Smith seem way out of touch. Also, considering that this whole movie was spawned from an idea on Smith’s own podcast, you’d think he’d be a little more insightful when taking the piss out of podcasting culture. But no, Long and Osment are just portrayed as obnoxious assholes who laugh way too much. If Smith’s point is that the internet is full of pompous dickheads, well that’s not exactly news is it? After all, you’re reading the words of a pompous dickhead right now.
Things get worse when Long travels to Canada to interview the kid. There’s a spectacularly unfunny scene with a border agent where Smith gets to make a ton of obvious Canadian jokes: They say ‘aboot’! They like hockey! They’re nice! It comes off like a sixth graders’ idea of what’s funny about Canada. Thankfully things pick up when Long finds himself unable to interview the Kill Bill Kid (for unfunny reasons I won’t get into) and seeks out the home of an old sea farer instead.
This seafarer, who calls himself Howard Howe (another shrug), is quite the character. He lives in a great looking gothic mansion filled with artifacts he’s collected over the years, one of which is the bone of a walrus dick. You read that correctly. He claims to have known Ernest Hemingway and tells Long stories of the time he was lost at sea and was saved by ‘the most beautiful of animals’, a walrus. Long thinks the whole thing is hilarious and is too enraptured to notice that he’s been drugged. Once he wakes up, the real fun begins.
This is where the movie works best. The game of cat and mouse between Long and Parks is creepy, funny, and tense. Parks was terrifying in Smith’s Red State (another fun mess) and is more terrifying here. He even makes the ludicrous reason for why he wants to turn Long into a walrus convincing. He’s such a bizarre character, trying to convince Long everything is fine one moment and then mocking his screams the next. Much of the movie is simply Parks talking and he’s always completely riveting, especially when we get his full backstory. Smith hasn’t learned many new camera tricks over the years, so he frequently just puts the camera in front of Parks and lets him go. When you’ve got an actor that charismatic, that’s a fine choice.
It’s less of a fine choice when you think that applies to every actor. Genesis Rodriquez plays Long’s girlfriend and she has a few similar speeches where Smith leaves the camera on her. None of them are interesting, partly because we know so little about her character, partly because she’s not very good, but mostly because it’s unbelievable that this super model of a woman would be into either Long or Osment. That continues to be a systemic problem in Hollywood though and is a discussion for another time.
Johnny Depp is also not as compelling when Smith allows him to monologue. He shows up halfway as a former detective named Guy LaPointe (third shrug). He’s been on Park’s trail for some time and agrees to help Osment and Rodriguez once they realize their friend is missing. He’s decked out in a cheap prosthetic nose, weird looking facial hair, a beret, and he uses, of course, a silly accent. That being said, he’s not half as annoying as all of that sounds. Some of his jokes land and are quite funny while others fall completely flat. The movie’s single worst scene is a flashback that shows how Depp first encountered Parks. It’s nothing but two actors using stupid accents and providing us with no new information. When Depp and crew are actually moving the plot forward by retracing Long’s steps, they’re more interesting.
But never quite as interesting as Parks and Long. Smith promised on his podcast that Long would indeed go ‘full walrus’ and he makes good on that promise, for whatever that’s worth. The human/walrus hybrid is both hilarious and horrifying. Smith lets the humor flow naturally from the situation in these scenes. There’s no winking at the camera and no forced jokes; just utter insanity played completely straight. The movie builds and builds as Parks tries to train his new creation and by the time we got to their final scene, my jaw was on the floor. This was also where the words, ‘man this is fucked up’ passed through my head more than once.
I’ve always rooted for Smith and am pleased that he seems to be having such a good time working outside the studio system once again. Tusk is the first in a planned interconnected trilogy (he’s already shot three quarters of the next film, Yoga Hosiers and the third is supposedly titled Moose Jaws) and while I can’t say I’m foaming at the mouth for the next installment, I can at least say I’ll go see it. If you hate Smith though, you’ll probably hate Tusk more than anything else he’s done. Yes, even more than Jersey Girl. If you’re a fan, this is worth your time despite its problems. Let’s hope he fixes those before the next one though.
He needs to tighten up the horror elements a bit and not rely so much on forced humor and padding. Still, Tusk works well enough for me to recommend it. It’s smarter, funnier, and scarier than The Human Centipede movies and not nearly as disgusting. It features a great performance by Michael Parks and contains scenes that are so goddamn fucking weird that you can’t take your eyes of them. That walrus is going to stay in my head for a long, long time.