‘Tusk’ Review: Tsk-Tsk
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” ~ Dr. Ian Malcolm
“I think that brings us to the major problem: you’ve been abusing the very moderate amount of power we gave you. I have no choice but to take it away. You’re back to being mail clerk, okay?” ~ The Kids in the Hall
Congratulations, Kevin Smith. You just killed irony.
Tusk is the latest film from Mr. Smith, a 1990s indie darling whose early films about the plights and preoccupations of shiftless layabouts had a stinging, sometimes embarrassing air of truth about them. Their heroes’ ongoing efforts to find meaning in pop minutiae were sad yet somehow noble; they were doing the best they could with what little culture they had. How could they achieve anything but mediocrity with only Star Wars and porn to guide them?
But Smith found a way to turn their ignorance of their personal tragedy into stalwart statements about man’s inability to accept defeat. Every little success at life – love, friendship and a greater understanding about human nature – was hard won and ultimately earned, and more so than usual because of the overwhelmingly banal obstacles in his protagonists’ paths. The rambling, often stoned think pieces about weird and pointless crap was a twisty, turny but somehow effective road to maturity. In short: those rants had a point, just not necessarily the point the teller thought they were making.
But that was then, and this is now. Now we reside in the second decade of the 21st Century, when marijuana fueled pitch sessions are the selling point of many a podcast, and keep folks like Smith (and, admittedly, myself) gainfully employed. Once upon a time the medium was the message. Now the message is that the medium probably doesn’t have one anymore.
The end result of one of Kevin Smith’s podcasts, in which he jokingly came up with the plot for a movie in which Justin Long is transformed against his will into a human walrus, is the movie Tusk. It is, to use an expression I have perhaps beaten to death by now, exactly what it says on the tin. Justin Long is indeed transformed against his will into a human walrus.
And somehow Kevin Smith has managed to take the body modification horror and mad scientist philosophizing of The Human Centipede and drained it of all of its power. If you were previously unaware that The Human Centipede had any, I invite you to watch Tom Six’s film and Kevin Smith’s back to back and tell me that the former doesn’t at least accrue some by default.
Tusk is a punchline. A long, expensive punchline to a set up that was funnier without one. The Tusk saga is in many respects a dead baby joke because it is funnier that someone is actually telling it than it is actually funny. Tusk exists to prove that Kevin Smith can come up with a very stupid idea for a movie and then actually manage to make it. In other words, if you’ve seen the poster or trailer and you believe that Tusk is actually playing at a theater near you, you don’t need to see it.
The miracle at play here is that for a time, Tusk actually feels like a real movie. It has characters who actually seem to exist in situations that actually seem to matter. Justin Long plays a callous schmuck who makes a living making fun of other people on a podcast. Haley Joel Osment plays his co-host, who encourages Long’s behavior but doesn’t always approve, and Genesis Rodriguez plays Long’s girlfriend, who misses the days when her beau was less successful but still had an undeniable soul.
Long flies to Canada to interview the star of a recent internet meme but unexpected circumstances strand him in The Great White North with no one to talk to. Rather than waste the trip he rips a flyer off a bathroom stall (Tusk includes not one but two long scenes of Justin Long urinating and looking at things) and travels to the home of an old man played by Michael Parks, who claims he’s just looking for someone to listen to his stories. One of those stories is about how Parks was marooned on an island and befriended a walrus. Then Justin Long passes out and wakes up without a leg.
It’s worth noting that Michael Parks is a good sport about this. The man knows how to tell a tale, and imbues his character with the sort of truthfulness that would normally not befit a villain who sings to a human walrus as he nestles in its Frankenstein folds. The rest of the cast is treating the material as seriously as they can as well… except for Guy LaPointe.
The moment when Tusk abandons all semblance of actual storytelling is the moment Mssr. LaPointe appears on screen. He is played by an actor to whom critics and audiences have often speculated that nobody can say “no” anymore. It may finally be time to yell that simple yet powerful word at the screen. I suggest yelling it at the interminable sequence in which Mssr. LaPointe and Michael Parks adopt embarrassing accents and talk cross purposes about hockey, spiders and bowel movements resulting from too much poutine. It goes on for so long, and is so defiantly pointless, that the joke of the film finally rips itself apart and lays its guts bare: the joke, my fellow audience members, is on us.
We paid to watch this thing. Some of us even tweeted the hashtag #WalrusYes and helped to make it happen. Kevin Smith seems to find this fact so unbearably funny that he can’t stop himself from moving forward. He had to make this movie, if only to prove that his admittedly funny podcast pitch could be made into an real film. The finale of Tusk, which is absurd but played honestly by the actors, is recounted over the closing credits with a clip from the podcast episode, proving just how stupid Kevin Smith thinks what we just watched actually is.
We are not supposed to laugh with Tusk, we are supposed to laugh with Kevin Smith. But it’s just not funny anymore. If anything, it’s a sad reversal of the early successes in Kevin Smith’s career. Here was a man who once found deeper meaning in dorky obsession. Now, the obsession is all that’s left. There’s nothing real underneath this, and nothing to be learned or gained from hearing the storyteller out. In Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy Smith invited us to stick with him because he was going somewhere with all his verbose silliness. In Tusk he’s only asking us to stick with him because his crapulence is somehow going to get even more indulgent.
It may be tempting to accept Tusk as the metafictional joke it obviously is, but the problem with metafiction is that it too often encourages an author to demand applause for simply making something, and not for making it work. The tragedy is that Smith is a genuinely good filmmaker – his faults may have been noted, but he knows what he’s doing – and he’s clearly better than this. It’s not worth praising Tusk for being an ambitious in-joke any more than it would be worth praising Stanley Kubrick for telling a longwinded knock-knock gag. We don’t have to prove we get it by giving him a high five. Sometimes a withered smile and a pat on the back is enough. Yes, yes, very funny, you made Tusk. Tsk-tsk, tusk-tusk, can you please get back to work?