If I’d known this was a Kevin Smith movie, I probably wouldn’t have watched it, since I’ve either loathed everything he’s ever done or been bored by it. That I didn’t recognize it as such is both embarrassing and telling. But it does indicate that he’s become a marginally more interesting and competent film-maker: the double-backs in narrative time, the alternate perspectives and the subtle shifts in tone, as well as some real if limited social satire, as opposed to the broad and lazy adolescent sarcasm that is his stock and trade. I’m not talking about the walrus scenes or Johnny Depp’s stupid performance, the comedy in both of which is execrable, obvious and very familiar Kevin-Smith. The literal use of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is so, uh, high school.
No, I’m talking about the anti-chauvinist and anti-celebrity-Internet observations contained within the conversations and the podcast, which are made all the more relevant because Smith himself has so often benefited from the latter, specifically with the making of this movie. So although, to his credit and his detriment, he’s always seemed unimpressed with what he does for a living, this is the first time I felt like the self-deprecating humor was more than just a stunt or a pose, but instead a semi-intelligent auto-critique.
Smith has always had a way with dialogue and to my ears, this is the best he’s written yet, and I have to admit that I laughed at the diction in the monologues and stories of Howard Howe, played with some restraint by a nimble if possibly mortified Michael Parks. I’ve often commented that Smith’s a talented director of actors, and is better than most of his generation at creating rapport among his principals. In Tusk, he controls the tone remarkably. It’s not until Johnny Depp’s absurd caricature, Guy Lapointe, appears, that the cast starts to giggle behind their hands. Smith was also savvy enough to have cast Justin Long, an underrated, resourceful, always-present actor, who’s better at controlling and focusing his mannerisms than someone like Jesse Eisenberg. One of the reasons why the film fails so spectacularly is because Long becomes the walrus too soon, and his presence, and the focus of whatever critique there was disappears.
What’s left is Smith’s sniggering attempt at remaking parts of Cronenberg’s Crash and especially Tom Six’s The Human Centipede. (I must be just 1 of 20 people who actually appreciate the latter film.) Unlike both of those directors, Smith’s yuk-yuk persona (typified by the self-congratulatory and obnoxious original podcast that Smith can’t resist running under the end credits, just in case we didn’t get that he was JUST KIDDING) and his very American anti-intellectualism make it impossible for him to take anyone’s obsessions or neuroses seriously, and that’s one of many reasons why he’ll never be an artist. But, based on his output over the last 20 years or so, I guess he doesn’t want to be. Some people find that charming, reassuring even. I find it banal and mostly boring.