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Review: ‘Tusk’

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Writer/director Kevin Smith has built his reputation by making offbeat comedies like Clerks and Dogma.  However, with his last film, the religiously charged thriller Red State, he let Hollywood know that all bets are off.  His newest film, Tusk, is his strangest yet.

Tusk tells the story of an internet podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long from Jeepers Creepers) who travels to Canada for an interview that falls apart as soon as he arrives.  He stumbles across an old man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks, who has found a niche playing Sheriff Earl McGraw in the Tarantino/Rodriguez Universe) who has a ton of cool stories, and decides to interview him instead.  What Wallace doesn’t know is that Howard is a certified lunatic, and the old man drugs Wallace and performs a series of surgeries on him with the ultimate goal being to turn the young man into a walrus.  When Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez from Hours), and his podcast partner, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, the kid from The Sixth Sense), don’t hear from him, the pair comes looking for him.  But what will be left when…or if…they find him?

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The idea for Tusk came from a discussion on Smith’s podcast, SModcast, with his friend and co-podcaster Scott Mosier about an ad placed in an online community offering free room and board to anyone who would dress as a walrus for a couple of hours a day for the duration of their stay.  Smith and Mosier had a great time riffing on the concept and hashing out a story, until finally Smith said “someone’s gonna steal this idea.”  He left it up to the fans to decide on Twitter with two simple hashtags: #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo.  The yeses won, and now we’ve got Tusk.

Tusk is an odd movie.  It starts off like Misery, then morphs into The Human Centipede, keeping the Kevin Smith sense of humor the entire time.  Truth be told, it’s a pretty silly concept, but Smith pulls it off incredibly well thanks to some great acting, particularly by Michael Parks as the maniacal Howard.  Parks embraces every line of his wacky dialogue so hard that the viewer has no choice but to believe in his seriousness.  As is the case with most of Kevin Smith’s movies, the script is pretty wordy, but Parks and Justin Long (who are onscreen for the majority of the film) keep it interesting with their performances.

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Around the halfway point of the film there’s a distinct shift in tone.  This is when Parks and Long surrender some of their screen time to Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment.  This is also when the film goes from creepy to campy.  Ally and Teddy are aided in their search by a Canadian Policeman named LaPointe (played by “The” Johnny Depp) who spoon-feeds exposition with an annoying faux-Canadian accent, derailing the momentum of the film.  The search for Wallace is not nearly as effective as what is actually happening to him; the audience just begs for the narrative to get back to the Howard and Wallace storyline.

One thing that can be said for Tusk is that it doesn’t do anything halfway; when it’s dark, it’s really dark, and when it’s corny, it’s really corny.  As a result of this commitment, it comes off as a throwback B-movie with very high production values.  It’s a smart blend of body horror and monster movie that will appeal to horror buffs and comedy fans alike.  At its root, Tusk is a modern creature feature, and one of which Roger Corman would be proud.

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If you haven’t listened to the SModcast episode that inspired Tusk (it’s episode 259), see the movie first.  The podcast is hilarious, but what Smith and Mosier come up during their brainstorming session is pretty close to what ends up onscreen.  Tusk should take the viewer by surprise as much as possible; it’s intended to shock, amuse, and mortify.  One can almost hear the echoes of Kevin Smith howling with laughter as they watch, either because he thinks that Tusk is funny or because he thinks that it will offend people.  Either way, mission accomplished.

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