Year: 2014
Production Co: Demarest Films
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Marks, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, Johnny Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Ralph Garman, Ashley Greene, Jennifer Schwalbach

It's hard to know how to take a lot of Kevin Smith movies. Usually a film has to rise or fall on its own merit, but the writer/director – now in the 20th year of his career since the release of Clerks – is so vocal and open about his professional life and interests through his podcast network and social media that he often gives us the whole story behind the film as well.

Sometimes it clarifies his artistic intent (words you don't usually equate with Smith - and he probably wouldn't either) and sometimes it muddies it, like it has here. Is Tusk a verité fairytale, like the protagonist's ultimate fate seems to suggest? Is there a deep subtext about morality, humanity and relationship infidelity? Or is it a straight, unapologetic and surface-level B monster movie?

Whichever the case, the tone and the narrative veer between all three, and if it's supposed to be all three at once it's a bit too clumsily plotted to pull it off.

If you're a fan of Smith's work you'll still get a kick out of all the callbacks to his career and passions – everything from his love of the Canada setting to the use of a jingle from the podcast he shares with radio DJ Ralph Garman as one of the characters' mobile phone ringtones.

Like Smith, Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment – yes, the 'I see dead people' kid from The Sixth Sense, now all grown up) have a successful podcast in LA. When a video of a Canadian kid goes viral online, Wallace promises their listeners he'll find and interview the kid, but when he gets there to find the young man's left this mortal coil, he's left with no material.

We then get the first inkling of how Wallace isn't quite the hero of the tale, but a bit of a dick. He doesn't care the least about the poor kid, he's just upset that he's got no show. So when he finds an intriguing letter taped to a noticeboard in the men's room of a bar, he thinks he might have found something to justify the expense.

Wallace calls the old man behind the letter, a recluse in a remote mansion who's looking for a houseguest to do odd jobs for a few days in exchange for stories about his extraordinary life. He finds himself in the company of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a well-spoken, wheelchair-bound raconteur who starts telling his boorish guest some incredible stories of wartime, literature and a friendly walrus.

Even though he's hooked, Wallace finds himself getting drowsier thanks to the sedative in his tea, and the nightmare begins. Howard isn't all he seems, and even if he really did befriend a walrus when he was shipwrecked as a young sailor (which is never really established one way or another), Wallace is going to pay dearly to be part of the older man's delusions.

It's not really a spoiler because it's been talked about so much – especially by Smith himself – but if you don't know you might want to skip to the next paragraph. Howard wants to turn Wallace into a human walrus, complete with tusks, flippers and a blubbery, bulky body.

First, both the concept and the execution are absolutely stupid. That's not a problem in itself – plenty of movies have used ridiculous concepts to tell good stories or say important things.

But there are too many other problems that stop it being either a good story or having anything to say. Just one is the pacing – at more than one point the action stops abruptly for a monologue or actor's showcase that goes on way too long. As Wallace's girlfriend Ally, Genesis Rodriguez gets a two minute soliloquy about his cheating that doesn't add anything to the story Wallace doesn't himself confirm later on.

And Johnny Depp as the cartoonish Montreal detective on Howe's trail is a complete roadblock. An entire sequence of Ally and Teddy meeting him in a diner would be way too long even if Depp's character was funny (it isn't), as would the flashback when he unwittingly meets Howe. Smith is just too in love with actors and performances to trim them for the good of the story – he even told reporters recently that the editor in him felt he should have cut some more (a voice he should have listened to).

There's one single very positive note. For all the creative misdirection in the film, it's very heartening to see real, in-camera make-up effects in an era still awash with too much shabby CGI. That really is Justin Long stuffed into a rubber walrus suit with fake tusks protruding from his upper gums, and it gives the whole movie a entirely different aesthetic that feels lived-in and crafted rather than cost-managed by a studio committee.

In the end Tusk might be a noble experiment. It's not good, but it demands your attention. It seems to represent Smith still trying to break out of the conventions that made him a star (fratboy humour and nerdy pop culture references), but he just might not have the subtlety to do it as much as he wants.

Of course, like a lot of his recent work, neither Smith nor his distributor will care what any critics think. With its $2.7m price tag, Tusk is at the centre of a new moviemaking universe Smith tried to forge by distributing his last movie Red State himself, and it means he'll have a career on his own terms for a long time yet.

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