Continuing the fascinatingly odd path Kevin Smith's career has taken since he helped kickstart the 90's indie movie scene with "Clerks," the filmmaker's latest is a horror-comedy tailor-made for those with a taste for the spectacularly bizarre. The idea behind "Tusk" sprang from Smith's mind during the taping of his popular podcast (a snippet of the conversation plays during the film's end credits, and it gives you a pretty clear idea of the state of mind he was in). Stoned and riffing with his co-host, Scott Mosier, they landed on the story of a personal ad posted by someone looking for a partner willing to dress up like a walrus, and spitball how they'd turn the concept into a film. Flash forward a year or so, and now that idea has made its way into cinemas. That there exists an official "Tusk" branded strain of pot should tell you everything you need to know about whether you fit into the intended audience for the movie.
Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, the obnoxious host of an L.A. podcast called "The Not-See Party," which specializes in celebrating the stupidest videos the internet has to offer. Early on, Wallace sets off toward the Great White North hoping to interview a recent viral video star, but when that doesn't work out, he's forced to find another story. Eventually he comes across a flyer written by an eccentric old man named Howard Howe (cult movie actor Michael Parks), who claims to have led "a life of adventure, with stories to tell." Wallace makes plans to meet Howe at his isolated woodland estate. In no time at all, Wallace has been drugged and restrained, thus beginning Howe's plot to transform the hapless dope into his personal walrus companion.
"Tusk" is utter nonsense (intentionally so), but the main reason to see the film is to enjoy Park's magnetic performance as the demented Howe. Parks previously worked with Smith on his last foray into horror, "Red State," and the actor has a real gift for delivering Smith's infamously verbose dialogue. Reciting Shakespeare, recounting war stories and rhapsodizing about his long-ago friendship with a real walrus he dubbed "Mr. Tusk," Parks turns a total nutjob into a fascinating, compelling character. As odd as it sounds given the premise, Park plays the part with (relative) subtlety, walking the line of camp without ever crossing over. Long is almost as good in a bigger, broader performance that plays up Wallace's callousness, and making us feel like he deserves whatever he gets. More impressively, he successfully earns back our sympathy when things start to look significantly more dire for him.
Unfortunately for "Tusk," the film spends its second half focusing on Wallace's podcasting co-host (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) as they attempt to track down and rescue Wallace. They enlist the assistance of Guy Lapointe, a Québécois detective who's spent years on Howe's trail. It's the introduction of this character that marks the exact point when the film truly goes off the rails, and it never fully recovers. Reviewers have been torn on whether or not to name the major movie star who portrays Lapointe, though I'm going to avoid revealing who it is (if you really want to know, he's listed on the film's IMDB page). It's an actor known for delivering bizarre performances, but this one feels especially misguided -- he appears to be aiming for something like a French-Canadian Jerry Lewis. It doesn't help matters that in his first scene, he's forced to deliver pages of endless exposition, stopping the film dead in its tracks, completely killing any momentum it had built up the process. The early portion of the film is truly engrossing, and even once limbs start getting hacked off and the film starts to feel like it's flailing, it continues to be fascinating in a "what the f*** am I watching?" kind of way.
"Tusk" is a huge leap forward for Smith visually, and director of photography James Laxton's darkly beautiful cinematography elevates the film immeasurably. Though the practical makeup used in depicting Long's gradual transformation betrays the film's modest budget, somehow it grows more unsettling the longer we're allowed to look at it.
Purposely attempting to create a "midnight movie" doesn't typically yield quality results, and "Tusk" isn't really an exception, putting me in the odd position of (tentatively) recommending a film that's really not "good." Look, I've now written over 700 words attempting to justify (mostly to myself) why it worked on me. Maybe it's the hint of self-criticism Smith injects to his depiction of Wallace, or maybe it's leftover goodwill from the fact that I still unabashedly love "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Dogma." Whatever the reason, despite the fact that "Tusk" is not really funny, never very scary, for some inexplicable reason I enjoyed myself. You may just need the influence of a mind-altering substance.