Directed by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, and Genesis Rodriguez
The Plot: A single older man seeking a lodger… but only if that lodger was willing to dress as a walrus for up to two hours every day. – The actual Gumtree (Australia’s Craigslist) advert Tusk is based on.
A professional podcaster ends up Shanghaied in Canada by a lunatic after seeking out a story for his online show. His captor has an obsession with odobenus rosmaru – aka the walrus – and will go to great extremes to recreate the beast from any materials he may find. Including podcasters.
The Film: After 20 years and 11 feature films, it took Tusk to finally make me understand Kevin Smith. As shocking as it is for me to write this, I get him now. At least I think I do…
Tusk is a cautionary tale conjured from the reprobatic ritual of communal pot-smoking and the cult of online personality phenomena. A bong-dream made material. More bar bet than film production – or so it would at first seem. In a crazy bit of personal inventory accounting Smith has modified (a fitting description, Tusk is all about modification) the conventional horror story into something slightly more introspective than I think his critics would give him credit for.
Yes, Tusk is about a man surgically altering another man into a pet walrus. Yes, it’s every bit as retarded as it sounds.
Apologies, studious auditors of derogatory speech – I use retarded as a compliment in this instance. Under more lucid circumstances an idea this ridiculous should have been evicted in the embryonic stage. Tusk should never have been allowed to reach full term. But it gestated. It matured – if we can indeed call it that – until its mustached muzzle tore through the caul, and it spilled, for lack of a better term, into our theaters. An abomination for sure – I heard one popular critic call Tusk “really stupid” on our post-screening elevator ride. Others agreed with him. But looked at strictly as an original property – a true, genre maverick – Tusk has pushed the boundaries of the expansive world of cinema an inch or two further outward.
Perhaps the length of Kevin Smith’s middle finger.
We could go on about Kevin Smith’s verbal sparring with Club Meh, (or, as they’re known in more fustian provinces, the film critic community) and how as a creator he has every right to keep his creations locked securely in a vault, and not hang them up in the public square for scrutiny, but I won’t. Art demands opinion, whether solicited or not. So say we all. And Tusk…? Tusk demands patience and tolerance. Though the film is designed to stress test both.
I can’t help but think of Kevin Smith as a giddy, post-modern Torquemada, knowing that his new horror film will naturally draw in the critics – involuntary and professional – who so despise him, only to discover a movie every bit as mad, disgusting, aggravating, and irrelevant as they’d hoped it would be. And Smith, once he has these drink-holder dignitaries in their seats, knowingly cranking the bizarro, carnival sideshow noise up to intolerable proportions.
The effect is a lurching, monster of a monster film. A clumsy triumph of clustercussery. Neither comedy nor full horror film – but an off-kilter, gamma-ray injected, mutation of both.
It’s fitting that Kevin Smith cast Justin Long as the casualty of Michael Parks’ odd zoological proclivities. Justin is the perpetual pubescent. His voice a layer of thin ice, ready to crack at the slightest hint of pressure. Like Smith, his character produces his own podcast. In the film his podcasting partner is former-child-prodigy-turned-genuinely-likable-bro-dwarf, Haley Joel Osment. Justin Long pretty much plays the role of Kevin Smith’s on-screen surrogate. A successful, often caustic, fanboy’s fanboy. What Bad Religion deemed a 21st Century Digital Boy. At one point in the film, Justin’s Wallace (that name, in this movie… the Doctor Seuss book practically writes itself) even tells his girlfriend: “Nobody liked me back when I was a nice guy talking about Star Wars…”
Like Kevin, Wallace comes off as a snotty megalomaniac. He’s made immensely more shrill by the many operations that transform him into Mr. Tusk – Michael Parks’ pet name for his… err… pet. We never warm up to Wallace, even as a walrus we wish someone would step in with a ball peen hammer and beat the poor beast out of its misery. Strangely enough, we warm to Parks’ Howard Howe, (another name for library Seuss) he’s musty and psychotic, but compared to the voices of The Not-See Podcast, (Nazi Podcast...get it?) Parks is so much more interesting.
If we can trust this elderly charlatan, when he was younger he stormed Nazi bunkers, survived shipwrecks in the Arctic Circle, found solace under the comforting wings of a friendly walrus… Howe is a man of adventure. A man of antiquity and formality. A man unconcerned with midi-chlorian counts and topless cosplay girls.
Howard is everything Wallace isn’t.
The point being that Kevin Smith, with these two characters, has set up a generational war between the greatest generation, and generation teenage wasteland. Between genuine warriors and those that grew up watching Warriors on Showtime. In another way he’s allowing us a peek into the interior of Kevin Smith – the inner struggle between middle-aged comic-book obsessive and generally serious scholar and filmmaker. A man interested intensely in both Ernest Hemingway and the perfect fart joke. Which is where you get the addled literate/locker room vibe in Tusk.
Tusk asks the question of Kevin’s generation of over-informed deadbeat… Are we men? Or are we muppets? That he chooses to cram Justin Long kicking and screeching into a ghastly (absolutely ghastly) walrus suit tells us exactly what his verdict might be.
The Verdict: Not that it’s all buffoonery. There are some honest-to-god great scenes in Tusk. In between the nerd-chatter and nonconsensual reconstructive surgery, there are moments where Kevin Smith – the filmmaker – lets his light shine. There’s a scene between Genesis Rodriguez (terrific in this) and Haley Joel (also terrific) where she discusses her father and her drive to seek out toxic men, that is particularly tender and tragic. Tusk isn’t the dumb movie it so desperately wants you to think it is. I had fun with this.