For a stunt, let alone one from Kevin Smith, Tusk is at least committed to its absurd premise. This may have germinated as a goofy conversation on the podcast Smith hosts with Scott Mosier, but the writer-director follows it all the way through to its bloody, bewildering end.
Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one half of a popular comedy podcast called the Not-See Party (Haley Joel Osment plays his co-host). The show’s gimmick is to track down the subjects of odd and ridiculous Internet videos and interview/ridicule them. And so, at the start of the film, Wallace heads from Los Angeles to Canada to professionally laugh at a kid who sliced off his own leg while attempting some samurai moves in his garage.
It’s a blackly funny and instructively ominous setup – the kid’s wheelchair will hardly be the last one we see. For Tusk proceeds to turn the tables on Wallace and his brand of “cringe humor attack sh*#,” which is how his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) describes it. Before leaving Canada, Wallace tracks down an older, eccentric hermit named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who promises to share stories of his seafaring adventures. Turns out, he’s a deranged kidnapper with an unhealthy fondness for walruses.
Tusk, then, is a horror comedy, and the movie’s best moments are those that commingle laughter and gasps. What begins as an (intentionally) sophomoric “guys movie” about a pair of podcasting buddies turns into a grimly humorous horror show. And then it gets really weird.
Long isn’t at all interested in earning our sympathies – and he has the horrible mustache to prove it.
Long isn’t interested in earning our sympathies – and he has the horrible mustache to prove it. His Wallace is obnoxious, callous and, worst of all, incredibly unfunny. Whether there is some level of self-critique going on here on Smith’s part I can’t say, but I do know that he and Long have chosen to make their familiar central character someone seemingly deserving of the suffering he will endure.
As Howe, the cause of that suffering, Michael Parks does the nearly impossible: he makes a diabolical, yarn-spinning walrus devotee something other than a riotous camp figure. When they first meet, Howe shares stories of shipwrecks and sea battles, elegantly dropping in quotes from Hemingway and Tennyson. Then, after both we and Wallace come to realize something is terribly wrong, Howe maintains a veneer of civility. When the madness does finally break free, it has a horrible logic to it: Howe’s reason for his walrus love is at once laughable and oddly poignant.
So claims that Tusk is an unmitigated disaster seem a bit alarmist to me. That’s not to say, however, that the movie ultimately succeeds. There’s an ungainly pace to the film, so that scenes that should be succinct drag on forever, while the climax – a rescue attempt by Wallace’s co-host and girlfriend – is awkwardly rushed. There’s also a celebrity cameo that’s funny at first until you realize it’s ballooning into a supporting part, at which point the joke has been stretched exceedingly thin.
Yet when Parks has the screen as Howe, the movie manages to hit those elusive notes of plaintive, bizarre horror at which it seems to be aiming. Tusk clearly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – even though, as Howe says, “We’re all tea people” – but say this for it: if you really wanted to take the movie seriously, you could.