KEVIN SMITH'S 1994 debut Clerks found the filmmaker already firmly intertwined with his narrative, with the movie's hilarity bolstered by the writer/director's profane stories about his struggles getting the damn thing made in the first place. What first seemed like charming promotion quickly grew into a canny empire, as each subsequent project emerged accompanied by increased flurries of merchandising, Twitter rants, and self-referential Easter eggs. All of which is fine, unless you just kind of want to watch a movie.
Judged strictly by what's on the screen, Smith's Tusk is a bit of a hot mess: an initially creepy slice of body horror that repeatedly fritters away its mounting bad vibes through shoe-horned flashbacks and lengthy improv digressions. When taken as a part in the ever-evolving chronicle of All Things Kevin, however, it becomes something more interesting.
Based on a podcast riff between a stoned Smith and producer Scott Mosier, the plot follows a podcaster (Justin Long) who travels to the wilds of Manitoba in search of viral video inspiration. After his initial lead falls through, he finds himself in the Old Dark House of a wheelchair-bound recluse (Michael Parks) with a thing for sea creatures. The body parts and raw fish begin to pile up.
Smith's strength has always been conversations in confined spaces, and he gets some terrific work here from the underrated Long, who joins the ranks of Jason Lee and Jeff Anderson in being one of the few actors to make Smith's dialogue sound like something that a real person would actually say. Parks, meanwhile, proves to be an adept sparring partner, quickdrawing between whispery menace and plumb loco with ease. (As in Smith's last film, Red State, even when the movie gives him too much space, Parks fills it beautifully.) Absurd as Tusk quickly gets, when the camera is on the central gruesome twosome, it hums along.
The problems arise whenever the central characters aren't on screen, with a subplot involving Long's girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and best friend (Haley Joel Osment) that becomes less compelling with each return. As the momentum falters, the filler piles up—including multiple hockey references, extended cameos from the stars of Smith's next film, Yoga Hosers (including Smith's daughter), and an interminable monologue by highly publicized secret guest celebrity Johnny Depp that may, perhaps, be the single most self-indulgent thing that either Depp or Smith have ever been involved with. (Proposal: a Kickstarter to keep Depp away from the world's supply of rubber noses and funny voices. Forcibly, if need be. Which it will.) By the time the actual giggling podcast audio gets played over the closing credits, any lingering feelings of horror or unease generated by the narrative have been swept away by Smith's insistence at showing what's going on behind the curtain.
Those attuned to Smith's wavelength will no doubt be delighted by his latest expansion of the perimeters of social media—and to be fair, few filmmakers seem like they'd be more fun to hang out with for an afternoon. Audiences on the outside, however, may be taken aback by the degree with which their attention is forcibly focused on the storyteller rather than the story. Commentary tracks are optional for a reason.