One of my oldest and dearest friends and I went to see Kevin Smith’s Tusk last week and his (unfavourable) description of the film is that it’s “pointless”. I think he speaks for a lot of people who aren’t in the world of Smodcast Podcasts. Smith himself acknowledged all the criticism in his latest episode of “Hollywood Babble-On”, responding to the criticism he’s hearing that this is “a film no one asked for.” It certainly hasn’t made any money at the box office. But that was never the point of this film, nor was it to be a film someone “asked for”. And “pointless” is a great description if it can be adjusted slightly into “whimsical”. Pointless or not, Smith has shown us once again with Tusk that he is insisting on carving his own way through the landscape of cinema, broadcasting and popular culture.
I myself have been “with” this project from the very beginning, so full disclosure on that bias. I’ll try to represent this peculiar little movie as objectively as possible, but I’m firmly in the Smith camp on this one, despite the very valid criticisms that can be made about the movie.
I’ve been a fan of Smith since Clerks, which I saw the summer it was released on home video, exactly 20 years ago. I was also an early adopter at the Smodcast podcasts, particularly “Smodcast” itself and its more late-night boozy showbiz cousin “Hollywood Babble-On”. (“Tell ‘Em Steve Dave” is the grittier, “metal” version with Smith’s old New Jersey friends and “Fat Man on Batman” is exactly how it sounds, Smith geeking out about Batman with guests.) For me, these podcasts kept me entertained and often lifted my spirits on my long commute to and from campus at the College where I was teaching. I had a 45 minute drive (in good weather) both ways, so that provided ample time to spend with Kevin and his friends. In the summers, when I wasn’t commuting so much, I would still listen every week. Thus, the June 23, 2013 episode was for me just another in a long line of shows going back years. Titled “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, it was immediately one of the most hilarious and entertaining smodcasts, and I have a memory of posting the show to Facebook either that day or the next day. I couldn’t have known, nor could Kevin and his co-host Scott Mosier, where this would all lead.
“The Walrus and the Carpenter” is a fairly typical Smodcast episode: Kevin and Scott chat and crack jokes for 20 minutes or so, and then Kevin brings out his “news story” for the week, usually some crazy piece of news he’s found through trolling the internet, stoned. These stories often involve shark attacks, semi-obscure historical references (like the episode where they re-create the famous story of the Gimli Glider) and lots of crazy tangents and improvised scenes (“I’m me and you’re Bobby Orr: go!” is a typical Smith direction to Mosier for these sketches). The news story in this episode is taken from Gumtree, a UK website similar to Craigslist or Kijiji, where people advertise for, among other things, roommates. One particular story caught his eye, an elaborate ad seeking someone to share a house with some odd strings attached. The author of the ad, a retired architect, recounts the story of how he had known true happiness only when living on a desolate island with only a walrus, named Gregory, for company. Therefore in order to stay in his home, rent-free, a potential roommate would be required to wear a realistic walrus costume for two hours per day. While in that costume, the tenant would be a walrus, speaking and acting only as the animal, complete with catching fish in his mouth.
Smith and Mosier have enormous fun with this ad, creating characters and scenes using a wide range of British accents for the Architect, the potential walrus-man and even his soon-to-be former roommates (a group of English soccer hoodlums). Smith’s twisted imagination takes the concept to new heights, suggesting that it would be a better story if the tenant was “sewn in” to a walrus costume, or even, they propose a little later, is surgically altered to be a walrus. (“You gotta throw some gore in there, for the kids,” says Smith.). At a certain point, Kevin is so taken with the notion that he interjects and speaks directly into the mic, “By the way, copyright Kev and Scott, because this is a movie! I want to see this!” After talking through the whole thing, complete with the mention of the gratuitous and sappy sentimental song that seems to end all these sorts of horror movies, Mosier and Smith go their separate ways.
Lots of episodes of Smodcast have that sort of arc. Just a few weeks later they proposed another hilarious science fiction story about aliens that are actually visitors from the future who have lost their anuses due to a deal with a “space genie”, to whom they asked, “Get rid of all the assholes!” But something about the walrus story stuck with Smith, and a few weeks later myself and all the other Smodcast listeners enjoyed another great laugh when Smith revealed that he actually had started writing this crazy tale as a movie script. Everything happened very quickly after that. Smith had a complete script, funding (initially from Blumhouse, who Smith and Mosier talk about in the podcast) and even a leading actor, Michael Parks. At each stage of the process, Kevin described it as “chasing whimsy”. How far could he push this silly idea?
At San Diego Comic Con this summer, almost exactly one year after hearing that podcast, there I was sitting just a few rows from Kevin Smith himself as he introduced Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment, and showed the trailer for the movie they made, Tusk. Parks starred as the “Architect”, which had evolved into a ex-sailor and adventurer from Canada, and Justin Long starred as an American podcaster who goes to Manitoba to interview him. Osment is Long’s podcasting partner from LA, and Rodriguez is the love interest (of both, as it happens). As the story plays out, yes, Parks does surgically transform Long into a walrus, who he lovingly calls “Mr Tusk”.
The film is littered with podcast references. It’s clearly a movie for the fans, or for himself. Justin Long’s phone ringtone, for example, is a musical clip from Hollywood Babble-On. When the characters go for fast food (a Smith staple), it is in a fictitious restaurant called the “Gimli Slider”, which is decorated with Gimli Glider references and features Mrs Kevin Smith, Jennifer Schwalbach, as a waitress in a classic sixties flight attendant miniskirt. Ralph Garman, Smith’s Babble-On co-host, has a cameo as a local police officer, and most notably Smiths daughter Harley Quinn plays a convenience store clerk. Her role, and another Smodcast episode, will be expanded into a leading one for the sequel to Tusk, Yoga Hosers, which is almost finished shooting as of this date.
I appreciated all the inside baseball of Tusk, right down to the inclusion of the Fleetwood Mac song during the climax. (Smith later admitted that the rights to that song was the single biggest line item in the budget.) I found it entertaining and I think it’s destined to be one of those classic midnight movies. This is actually a perfect example of auteur theory, because consider this: what if this film weren’t a Kevin Smith movie? Change nothing about it, and simply make it the work of some anonymous Canadian or European director. I suspect then, the critical response would have been either better or irrelevant as, like all imaginative and quirky horror movies, it would find its audience. But this isn’t the work of just anyone, it’s a Kevin Smith film, and for that reason, and I’m willing to say pretty much only that reason, it’s come under some fairly virulent criticism.
For example, my fellow Canadian critics who aren’t familiar with Kevin’s odd take on the mannerisms of this country find his stereotypes baffling. On the CBC, the reviewer asked what country he was parodying, because it certainly isn’t this one. They, and others, seem to mistake Kevin’s broad stereotypes with beards, “oots” and “aboots” as ignorance, which almost laughable considering how much time Smith has spent up here and how well he knows Canadian culture. This is his funhouse mirror reflection of Canada, not meant to be realistic. It’s the Canada of whimsy, which is exactly what this film is about, and it’s also his idealized Canada, the country where he most wants to be. Smith’s Canada is full of jovial folk who love hockey, tell long stories, eat donuts and poutine and are generally pleasant. In other words, people much like Smith himself. It’s not such a bad place: and it’s certainly not meant to be taken seriously.
Other critics have pointed towards the wild shifts in tone and pacing that happen throughout the film, and the strange digressions. Again, this is pure Smith (all of these criticisms apply equally to Clerks), and at a certain point it simply becomes part of his style. “This film is the closest I’ve ever come to the movie I saw in my head when I was writing it,” he said recently, and I believe it. I just don’t think many people were prepared to spend that much time living in Smith’s idiosyncratic perspective on the world.
But even considering all of that, this film honestly is not a great piece of technical filmmaking, and there are some issues with the writing. Not the concept – that was always a bit of insane genius. The core story of a man who is essentially seduced by an older man into coming to his home, where he is drugged and violated surgically in a grotesque way: this is pure horror film and very much in line with The Human Centipede, which Smith acknowledges as an influence. The “wraparound” story, however, with Osment and Rodriguez has much less power and frankly much less compelling drama. An example of this comes early, in one of the film’s more well-edited sequences, where Rodriguez gives an emotional speech almost directly to camera, intercut with another sequence and creepy music. Her acting skill is obvious, but the justification for such a scene, so early on in the film, is less obvious. Osment and Long play two podcasters, both struggling LA comedians, neither of whom seem like either well-realized characters or particularly good people. But Rodriguez is getting tremendously emotional about them both romantically, and it feels wildly out of place, tonally. This is a speech for the third act, or maybe late in the second, motivating an important part of the drama. Instead, here, it seems like it’s imported straight from a completely different film. The scene was a last-minute addition, apparently, rewritten on the set, which made for a fine bit of actor-director business, but Smith should have seen in the editing that this was better left in Ms Rodriguez’s acting reel, not in his movie.
The film undercuts its own momentum again and again, with the Parks vs Long scenes sometimes building to genuine dramatic horror momentum (and the quintessentially Texan Parks actually plays the role with the most realistic Canadian accent in the movie!), only to be pulled off into some long and irrelevant scene of Osment and Rodriguez’s search. The character of Guy Lapointe, played by a special bit of stunt casting, is 100% digression and completely unnecessary, and also seems flown in from another film. However, I found his scenes hilarious and I’m sure that when this movie comes to home video, where it belongs, his scenes will be part of its cult.
Finally, to address the central issue: the anger towards this silly little movie. You could say that many films are “pointless” and don’t deserve to exist and I would be the first to agree, after four Transformers movies priced at about the cost of an Apollo moon mission each. The difference is that those Transformers movies (which is just one example among many) do have a point: to make money. Tusk “shouldn’t exist”, as Kevin Smith himself says, but it certainly does not exist to make money. (The film was pre-sold out of foreign rights, by the way, so despite its box office stats, the film is in the black.) In fact, its primary purpose was to re-energize Smith artistically, remind him, and his audience, of the unique elements of his voice (and they’re so strong in this film they actually overwhelm the film) and lead him to make more. By that standard, it’s been a tremendous success: Smith is finishing Yoga Hosers now, and has received the funding to finally complete the long-delayed Clerks 3.
Tusk is a critic-proof movie. I wouldn’t call it a good movie, but I will call it a very peculiar, interesting and fascinating one.