There are a few different ways to come at “Tusk.” It could be read as Kevin Smith’s acknowledgment that he has no viable Hollywood career or credibility left, and so he may as well make whatever blessed movie he wants. You could take it as the latest addition to the ranks of Hell No cinema, a.k.a. Did I Really Just See That? Maybe playing a brain-damaged French-Canadian variant on Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo is part of Johnny Depp’s long-term plan. Perhaps “Tusk” is a stoner’s deconstruction of body-horror movies like “The Human Centipede.”
Or maybe it’s just about a guy who gets turned into a walrus. Goo goo g’joob.
Smith, who long ago parlayed the low-budget hit “Clerks” (1994) into a mainstream career of ups (“Chasing Amy”), downs (“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”), and outs (blogging, podcasting, Internet TV series), has been likeably upfront about the fact that “Tusk” came to him while high, and it plays best to that corner of Kevin Smith Nation that knows from midnight movies and midnight snacks. Others will need to own their indulgence.
Star Justin Long leans on the obnoxious part of his persona — not a stretch, admittedly — as Wallace, a smarmy Yank podcaster who journeys up to Canada chasing a viral video story. When that doesn’t pan out, he accepts the invitation of spooky old geezer Howard Howe (Michael Parks) to spend the night at his crepuscular mansion and listen to tales of a misspent youth, including Howe’s castaway adventures with a beloved walrus he dubbed “Mr. Tusk.” One drugged tea later, Wallace awakes to find himself missing a limb or two and on his way to becoming Mr. Tusk.
A goofball surrealist take-down of the torture-porn genre? Sure, bring it on. But Smith seems to have been more charged up by the (profoundly ridiculous) ideas behind his movie than in making them work. It’s been a while since there’s been this much dead air onscreen; over and over, Smith sets up a sequence, lets his actors shpritz, and stands by as the energy fades into giggly catatonia.
A semi-amusing subplot involves Wallace’s worried, put-upon girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) following the trail north with his podcasting partner (and her lover) Teddy. The latter is played by Haley Joel Osment, the one-time “Sixth Sense” child star who seems more than happy to be this movie’s Hanna-Barbera sidekick, a la Boo-Boo or Barney Rubble.
Two developments finally push “Tusk” over the edge into appropriate psychotronic madness. First, Depp shows up — unbilled and under heavy make-up — as Guy Lapointe, a Fraanch-accented lawman whose Columbo-like tangents just spiral on into infinity. It’s a silly, sub-“SNL” performance, which may be just what Depp needs; he certainly seems more committed here than in blockbusters like “Transcendence” or “The Lone Ranger.”
Secondly, Wallace does at last become Mr. Tusk, and Smith somehow backs himself into a junky horror riff on Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” the Fleetwood Mac title tune bouncing along on the soundtrack while the movie collapses in a heap of rubber blubber, bloody ivory, and half-eaten scrod. As noted, your enjoyment may or may not depend on your specific brain chemistry at the time. Frustratingly, “Tusk” never answers its most pressing question: Do we have to change Justin Long back?
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.