Film and TV

Tusk Marks Kevin Smith's Return to the Director's Chair

Kevin Smith is a bright guy who over the years has become a little too taken with his own persona — it's the filmmaker's equivalent of getting high on your own supply. No matter how awkwardly pontifical or ill-shapen his movies have gotten in the past ten years — including his last, 2011's ploddingly self-righteous Red State — there's always a herd of noisy Jay and Silent Bob fanatics popping up to defend him as a genius. Smith seems to have bought the hype himself. In a guest column he wrote for the Hollywood Reporter last year, he actually referred to himself as a "naughty auteur." It's the sort of thing that would be hard for anyone other than, say, the eternally fabulous John Waters to get away with — and Waters would know better than to say it.

But even those of us who have grown weary of Kevin Smith might find a little sympathy for his latest picture, the body-horror tragicomedy Tusk. Let me temper that recommendation: Tusk is kind of terrible, annoying and self-congratulatory in all the ways we've come to expect from Smith, but it is at least trying to be about something. If you can squeeze past the movie's excess blubber, it's easy to see that even Smith — who maintains a large online fan base, thanks in part to SModcast, the podcast he does with longtime collaborator Scott Mosier — recognizes that the Internet has opened up new channels for bad behavior and callousness. Tusk works hard, too hard, to be out there: It wears its ambitions to become a midnight-movie classic right there on its fat flipper. But there's something mournful beneath all the bluster.

Tusk was inspired by a news item that Smith first brought to light in a SModcast: A homeowner had posted a notice on a U.K. classifieds site offering free lodging to some lucky individual, with one catch: Said tenant would be required, now and then, to dress up as a walrus. Smith has taken this little squib and fleshed it out into a rambling tale of obsession and madness. It all begins so innocently: Los Angeles-based Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) host a popular podcast oh-so-cleverly called the Not-See Party, where, mostly, they just crack each other up with their constant patter of inside jokes. They're obsessed with a homemade video one of their listeners has sent in: While reenacting a scene from one of the Kill Bill movies, a hapless Canadian kid lops his leg off with a sword.

Wallace heads out to Manitoba to interview this one-legged figure of pity — clearly, he's not above making fun of the kid. But his plans are derailed, and he finds himself without a story. Intrigued by a curious handwritten notice he spots in the men's room of a pub, he ends up trekking out to Middle of Nowhere, Manitoba, to meet eccentric, crusty, wheelchair-bound former seaman Howard Howe (Michael Parks). At first Wallace is amused by Howe's Moby Dick-sized seafaring whoppers. Then, after imbibing too much spiked tea, he awakens to discover...

Those who wish to know nothing about the movie's central plot element should stop reading here. (And if you're the least bit squeamish, you should have some idea of the mild ewkiness you're in for, though Smith, to his credit, doesn't have much of a taste for torture gross-outs.) Howard, it turns out, was once lost at sea. Upon finding dry land, he also found his way into the welcoming embrace of a walrus, and, having been an abused child and all-around troubled dude, he'd never known such warmth and security. Arising from his whacked-out belief that walruses are superior to human beings, he has devoted his many lonely hours to designing a walrus "suit" in which to encase a human — in other words, Wallace. After his forced and grisly transformation, Wallace is a comically horrible sight, his eyes staring forlornly out of a shell of moist, putty-colored, pieced-together flesh, two horrible, whiskery tusks poking out right where his human mustache used to be.

Smith can't resist packing all kinds of shenanigans around this conceit, most of them involving the efforts of Teddy; Wallace's girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez); and a French-Canadian detective played by a bodaciously disguised Johnny Depp. But the movie sags whenever it's supposed to be boisterously funny, and the best, creepiest moments involve the one-sided conversations between Howard and his weeping, sad-eyed captive. Parks makes a decent maniacal villain — he's elegant in a purely devious way, like a Masterpiece Theatre host gone off the deep end. But the movie really belongs to Justin Long, and only after he's encased in that terrible, blubbery suit. As Walrus Wallace, he's a haunting blob of a movie centerpiece, an idea in search of a film worthy of him.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.