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'Tusk' review: Elaborate in-joke for Kevin Smith fans

Michael Parks in

Michael Parks in "Tusk." Credit: Kent Smith / Mark Fellman

There are at least two admirable things about Kevin Smith: One is that he makes movies, and the other is that he makes them his way. During the 1990s, Smith defied his generation's too-cool, so-bored zeitgeist by getting off his duff and making several highly personal and successful features, including "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy." They were crudely fashioned, often crass and sometimes embarrassingly sincere, but they were unmistakably his own.

After a recent fallow period -- the Hollywood flop "Cop Out," the barely released horror-flick "Red State" -- Smith is back in the multiplexes with "Tusk." It's also a horror film, but with a gonzo premise, comic undertones and stunt casting that includes one mega-star. Even all that doesn't begin to suggest the utter weirdness of Smith's latest effort.

"Tusk" centers on Wallace, an obnoxious podcast host played by Justin Long with a swinger's mustache and a grating voice. Hunting for weirdos to mock, Wallace heads out to rural Canada and stumbles upon Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an old seafarer who offers hot tea and tall tales. Unfortunately, he's also a madman who likes to surgically transform people into -- get this -- walruses.

Borrowing from the classic "Psycho" (Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment play Wallace's concerned friends) and the not-so-classic "The Human Centipede" (you'll regret Googling it), "Tusk" is a head-scratching mix of pop culture humor, 20-something melodrama and fairly effective horror. The gore can be disturbing, but the histrionic outbursts (a Smith trademark) and off-the-mark comedy don't work. Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as an eccentric detective, but that's the most impressive thing about his funny-voiced, tic-ridden performance. Parks, a veteran character actor, nearly out-crazies him.

"Tusk" was inspired by one of Smith's own podcasts (#259, if you're curious), which may explain why it feels like an elaborate in-joke. It's his movie, but the rest of us may not get it.

PLOT A horror-comedy about a snarky podcaster and a man who loves walruses.


CAST Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Johnny Depp


BOTTOM LINE Kevin Smith, of "Clerks," delivers a weird in-joke inspired by one of his podcasts. You probably had to be there.

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