PLOT A woman grows addicted to the media spotlight after she grabs it following her husband's disappearance.
CAST Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Awkwafina, Samira Wiley, Jimmi Simpson, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Clifton Collins Jr.
RATED R (violence, sexual content, language and some nudity)
WHERE Limited theatrical release and on demand
BOTTOM LINE A weak imitation of much better movies.
"Breaking News in Yuba County" is another one of those movies that wants so badly to emulate the Coen Brothers' idiosyncratic brand of darkly comic Americana storytelling that it ends up seeming more like a soft imitation than anything else.
The whole key to movies like "Fargo" or "A Serious Man," and even sillier Coen offerings such as "Burn After Reading," is that the filmmakers and the cast take the characters and their stories seriously, thereby effectively satirizing quintessential archetypes ranging from a Midwestern car salesperson and police chief, to a put-upon college professor or gym workers who get swept up in CIA drama.
This new picture, directed by Tate Taylor ("Ma") and opening in limited theatrical release as well as being made available on demand Friday, has the bona fides to achieve a similar outcome, as well as a storyline with the potential for a sharp edge.
It's also got the cast to do it — the parade of talented individuals front and center here includes Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina, Jimmi Simpson, Regina Hall, Samira Wiley, Clifton Collins Jr., Matthew Modine, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Ellen Barkin and more.
But there are so many big names in the film that it starts to feel like stunt casting. It's hard to really trust a movie where there's another recognizable person everywhere you turn. You can't be immersed in a story when it starts to feel like "Hollywood Squares."
With a few exceptions, these very fine actors play their characters with just enough of a smirk to suggest that they know they're supposed to be playing ridiculous people in a broad satire. Trying hard to be funny rarely leads to actually being funny, or any other positive outcome.
And in telling the story of Janney's Sue Buttons, a lonely and neglected woman who becomes addicted to the spotlight after a media frenzy erupts around the disappearance of her husband Carl (Modine), the movie grasps to offer a cogent and unique perspective on the destructive costs of our ceaseless yearning for attention.
Sue knows what happened to Carl from the outset, so there's no mystery here. There is real promise in the narrative of a woman who willfully manipulates and embellishes the truth, with the gleeful and uncritical acceptance of the media, to the point where you feel as if she believes her lies. It's certainly not a phenomenon that is exclusive to the realm of fiction.
You just keep waiting for "Breaking News in Yuba County" to find something surprising or interesting to do with this beyond repeated scenes of Sue putting on a sociopathic performance for the cameras.
Enough rich and twisty plotting might have made up for this deficiency, but while the filmmakers involve criminal interests represented by Awkwafina's Mina and Collins Jr.'s Raj, betrayals and lots of violence, the movie never gets dark or weird enough to even work on even a superficially entertaining level.