When I was young, my dad used to constantly relay an old maxim. “Son,” he’d say, “the loudest guy in the bar is always going to be the least tough.” Outside of providing me with an essential bit of sage wisdom when it came to assessing the chances of getting my ass kicked, this brief aphorism doubled as one of my first lessons in the art of storytelling. Essentially, what my father was relaying was a tutorial in how to determine intent — to pick through a story’s delivery and try to understand just why it was being told. Keeping this truism in mind, I’m having a tough time deciding just why in the hell Kevin Smith decided to make Tusk, his latest foray into the world of horror filmmaking. While the New Jersey writer/director is certainly stretching outside of his comfort zone with this demented slice of body horror, it ultimately is nothing more than another juvenile descent into nonsense. To borrow from another tried and true expression (whose zoological roots seem fit for a movie about a loon transforming another man into a walrus): “a leopard cannot change its spots.”
Based on an episode of Smith’s SModcast (titled “The Walrus & The Carpenter”), Tusk tells the tale of Wallace (Justin Long), a podcast impresario who has essentially become the equivalent of an online Howard Stern, minus any kind of relevant social commentary. He’s a shock jock. A dick. A womanizer. He’s also become fairly rich and gets to travel around the world in order to seek out the latest object of ridicule for his show, “The Not-See Party,” (yes, it’s pronounced “Nazi” and there are lots of Nazi jokes — thanks Kevin). Upon meeting these various oddballs, Wallace returns to the studio in order to relay their ridiculous stories to Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), his grounded best friend and co-host. Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), Wallace’s girlfriend, thinks his show is entirely too mean spirited, as it seems like Wallace is getting more and more pleasure out of the embarrassment of those he’s exploiting for his own gain. When Wallace decides to venture to Canada to interview “the Kill Bill kid,” a viral video star who cut off his own leg with a katana, she believes a line is being crossed and only wants a part in it if she can travel with him in order to supervise (a demand Wallace simply cannot abide, as it’d cramp his style trying to pick up various “fangirls” for “road head”).
Enter Howard Howe (Michael Parks) — a retired, wheelchair bound ex-adventurer who, on the surface, seems like a lonely old man who wants nothing more than a receptacle for his tall tales. Faced with an inability to speak with “the Kill Bill kid” (on account of the boy succumbing to his mortal self-inflicted wound), Wallace heads even farther north to spend the night in Howard’s massive old mansion. At first, the old man seems like a kook, relaying stories about Hemingway at D-Day and voyages on the sea. Then Howard drops a doozy of a ditty — a walrus once saved the crusty seaman’s life and became his best friend. Unable to believe his ears, Wallace can’t help but press on, as even though Howard is a total wacko, he can spin a killer yarn. But as the hour races toward midnight, Wallace suddenly feels a little woozy, collapsing on the floor at the base of Howard’s wheelchair. Bemused, Howard simply tells the unconscious “Mr. Tusk” that everything will be alright. He’s going to take good, good care of him…
From the very beginning of Tusk, we are introduced to various human beings telling each other stories, and for various reasons. Wallace tells the stories of others to make a living while also telling Ally stories in order to cheat on her. Teddy tells a few stories of his own, as there is much more to the pudgy co-host than first meets the eye. The ultimate storyteller is obviously Howard, whose tales are so much bigger than life that they’re almost impossible not to believe because, truthfully, how could anybody make something like this up? In essence, Tusk begins as a dissection of why we, as human beings, construct these elaborate tales we tell and how they shape the reality we exist in. And if I’m being 100% honest: it all works. Smith has finally found an overarching topic to which he can apply his overly talky formula. For the entirety of his career, Kevin Smith has been a man obsessed with how we communicate and connect with one another (just look to Chasing Amy for the best example) and Tusk, in a way, feels like a culmination of that fascination.
Unfortunately, Kevin Smith cannot stop being Kevin Smith. This is, after all, the man who gave us a religious debate picture that also feartured a shit demon who crawled out of a toilet and sprayed a pub with feces. For every intellectually probing or genuinely disturbing moment, you have three blow job jokes that completely take you out of the movie. One could argue the juvenilia is all part of the gag; that the picture is self-aware of its own ludicrousness and goes out of its way to nudge you in the ribs and remind you that it’s essentially the cinematic equivalent of two stoners on the couch doing “wouldn’t it be funny if…” writ large. But that doesn’t render it any less infuriating once the end credits roll and Smith plays the SModcast Ep. that inspired this fiasco as a kind of blunted rosetta stone. Between the lines, all the movie seems interested in conveying is a very basic “can you believe they gave me money to make this shit?”
The biggest shame of this sophomoric self-indulgence is that Tusk is probably the first movie from Smith that feels cinematically interesting in, well…maybe ever. The blood of EC Comics runs through the picture’s black heart, both in terms of its ironically moralistic narrative twists to the visual aesthetics of Howe’s haunted home. Though there certainly isn’t any more dynamism to the camera movements and editing than any of Smith’s other raunchy stage plays, the set design and lighting capture a pop art Byronic quality the Crypt-keeper would be proud of. Once you tack on the truly ghoulish makeup design (Howe’s self-stitched “walrus suit” is super icky) and cartoonish performance from Michael Parks (who is so good that I’d almost recommend seeing Tusk for the actor alone), you have an impressive, funny book universe concocted by an artist who has never been known to be visually interesting in the least. It’s genuine growth, albeit incremental.
In the end, the only answer to my opening query regarding intent seems to be: “because I can.” Smith isn’t making Tusk for anyone but himself; a joke he and his friends can laugh about for years to come. But one can’t also help but wonder if the joke is on the paying audience. Smith and his Red Bank goons are all smoking up in the corner of the party, pointing and laughing at you for even showing up. A few years back, Smith went on a tirade against film critics, saying that the “whole system’s upside down”, and that he wasn’t going to offer his movies up unless those interested in reviewing it paid for a ticket. Well, it seems like Tusk might be his revenge against not only those paid to critique films for a living (as he’s basically relegated the movie to festival screenings before its big screen bow), but even audience members who championed his work while hoping he’d one day break out of his own self-made prison of sophomoric bullshit. Once the scrappy indie champion who financed a movie on credit cards, Smith has now reduced himself to being nothing more than the snarky, stoned rich kid, giggling at his own cruel pranks while those of us with dignity quit showing up to his shindigs.