Review: Surprising 'The Voices' offers Ryan Reynolds and a Scottish talking cat
Marjane Satrapi's Sundance premiere is a disturbingly funny treat
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Some movies stumble into cult status by accident, aiming for mainstream approval, but landing wide of that mark.
Other movies just shrug and steer self-consciously into a cult-friendly niche with every fiber of their being.
It isn't easy to do the former, but it's probably easier than the latter. Weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness often just ends up trying too hard. It's almost like you need a certain earnestness to make a cult film seem genuine, rather than over-calculated.
"The Voices," which is premiering out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is designed pretty purely as a cult movie. It probably should never play in 3000 theaters and it's certainly not going to make $100 million. From the first frame to the last, it's begging audiences to raise a collective eyebrow and go along for the ride, knowing that if you're in from the beginning, you'll probably be in for the duration, but that if you don't crack an immediate smile within 30 seconds, it probably won't get better.
"The Voices" is trying to be a cult film with a capital "C" and you can feel its effort in that direction... But it mostly works.
Carried to no small degree by wildly and successfully against-expectations direction from "Persepolis" veteran Marjane Satrapi, "The Voices" is "Psycho" by way of "Wonderfalls" by way of Francois Ozon.
Perhaps a little more successful when winking at genre expectations than when playing things straight, "The Voices" is funny, disturbing and whimsical, anchored by an "Oh right, he can act" performance by Ryan Reynolds, an "Oh duh, she's effortlessly appealing" performance by Anna Kendrick and an "Oh wow, that's what it takes to make her interesting" performance by Gemma Arterton.
More after the break…
Reynolds plays Jerry Hickfang, an unfortunate factory worker whose unfortunate name is the least unfortunate thing about him. Jerry is socially awkward and his job in fixture and faucet shipping is at the whim of his court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver). From a distance, he's in love with vivacious British temp Fiona (Arterton), but something about him intrigues recently divorced Lisa from Accounts Payable.
Jerry lives in a tiny apartment next to a bowling alley that never seems to have any customers, but always has the sound of crashing pins in the background. He has no wife or friends, but he lives with a large, lovable dog and a judgmental, aloof cat.
Otherwise alone, Jerry talks to his pets.
And they talk back.
The cat is a foul-mouthed sociopath with a Scottish accent.
The dog may lack for IQ points, but not for virtue and devotion.
See, Jerry's not quite right in the head. And this whole scenario is headed in a murderous direction.
Written by "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order: Special Victim Unit" veteran Michael R. Perry with a tangible giddiness at breaking away from a 42-minute procedural format, "The Voices" has a goofball conceit that will surely amuse pet owners, coupled with a psychologically twisted side that takes plenty of little jabs at the same people.
Effectively, "The Voices" is the story of an unsteady man with a feline devil on one shoulder and a canine angel on the other. What saves it from going down a quirky wormhole is Satrapi's approach, which is a dizzying mixture of artificiality and unnerving realism. [If you know me and my love for "Babe," you know I'm a sucker for effectively rendered talking animals and these talking animals are effectively rendered, with a combination of digital effects for lip-flap, smart lighting for emotional amplification and some well-cast furry stars.]
"The Voices" is set in the regionally non-specific American community of Milton, "The Town of Industry," but it was all filmed in Germany, largely on soundstages. The result is a location in which everything, from the restaurants to the consumer goods, is familiar but also alien. Much of the disassociation is meant to mirror Jerry's view of the world, though that view also varies depending on whether or not he's on his meds. It's an utter trip that the woman behind "Persepolis" would have this kind of movie in her, but in retrospect, it makes sense.
Satrapi's background in illustration is evident in every carefully composed frame and in the eye-popping color scheme that stretches through Udo Kramer's production design and Bettina Helmi's costumes. And then when "The Voices" pushes into its darker, thriller territory, it helps that cinematographer Maxime Alexandre's background includes things like "High Tension."
The film's ability to go back and forth between absurdity and actual creepiness is also at least somewhat tied to Reynolds' performance, which has an air of menace mixed with its comedic simpleness. I made the "Psycho" comparison above and there's a lot of Anthony Perkins in what Reynolds is doing here. In the early-going, I think Reynolds maybe slightly overplays Jerry's awkwardness, especially since by the time you understand the origin of the character's pathology he's already evolved, but he's very good with the character's sadness and his innocence. I don't know if this is Reynolds' best performance, but it's one of the most layered characters he's played and as the movie progressed, I was definitely impressed with some of the stuff he was doing.
Helping bring out the human side to Reynolds' character is Anna Kendrick, whose approachable charm is always an asset. One of Kendrick's gifts is that you can put her on screen with nearly anybody and she can make it seem like they have chemistry and Reynolds is no exception. It initially seems like Kendrick was supposed to be playing the "unattractive" co-worker, but that's mostly in comparison to Arterton, whose curvy lushness has rarely been better used without really being exploited. It would probably be spoiling to say the limitations Arterton is working against in certain scenes, but it forces her to land her punchlines with admirable crispness.
The goofiness of "The Voices" is established immediately with the opening credits that mix cute animation, with an industrial ballet of fork lifts and pink jump suits. It deepens with the introduction of profane Mr. Whiskers. It hits its peak in the middle when the violence moves into macabre, Grand Guignol excess. It falters a little as the strip tries to justify character origins which, frankly, probably work better without grounding or explanation. I had a brief fear that there was no way the movie could find an ending that matched the spirit of its beginning, but then "The Voices" nails a loopy conclusion. This won't be a movie for everybody and I wonder if the title, however appropriate, might not capture its tone, but people are going to be enjoying and talking about "The Voices" for a long time, even if they just call it, "The movie with Ryan Reynolds and the Scottish talking cat."