“I have to tell you about this script. It’s hilarious, it’s original, it’s twisted and it’ll never, ever, get made.” – my friend three years ago
There’s nothing quite like a movie recommendation from a friend. They’re the ‘critics’ who know what you like. When a friend shares something with you, you appreciate that something all the more because it’s based on a foundation of understanding and common interest. Or, at the very least, a friend’s endorsement carries an enthusiasm, that can be so contagious, that even if that something is not so great, you can’t help but grade that something on a curve.
With that in mind, I have a writer friend who knows I love black comedies. Heathers, Death to Smoochy, American Psycho and Fight Club are some of my favorites, and a few years ago he enthusiastically told me about Michael R. Perry’s “Black List” script The Voices. If you don’t know, “The Black List” is not only a hit NBC primetime drama, starring James Spader, but an under-the-table community of Hollywood writers who evaluate and share the best unproduced screenplays in the industry. Usually these scripts are unproduced because they are so crazy and fringe and genre bending that they are considered unfit for mass audiences.
“This screenplay is like Babe meets Se7en,” Rall whispered to me. With my curiosity peaked I grabbed the dog-eared pages, as he slipped the script under corner-booth table at Spagos. I sat gripping the parcel with nervous anticipation as Rall rose from the table and instructed me to remain at least 5 minutes after he exited. With as much calm as I could muster, I paid the check and then . . . oh, who am I kidding? Rall sent me an email attachment and I read it in an evening on my iPad. What’s important to realize is that I felt I was let in on a secret. That this script was forbidden, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only was it a funny and twisted read, but I was certain, just as my friend was, that it would never, ever, get made.
Now, before I go any further let me ask you a question. Did you laugh nervously when Vincent shot Marvin in the face in Pulp Fiction? Do you think Evil Dead 2 is just as funny as it is scary? Do you like to watch The Life of Brian on Easter Sunday and whistle along at the end? Do you think Ryan Reynolds is charming and that Anna Kendrick is adorable? If you answered yes to all of the above then don’t read past this paragraph. Instead, immediately rent or buy a copy of The Voices, and then come back and enjoy the rest of this review. If you haven’t seen any of the films I mentioned in the last paragraph, what’s wrong with you? Watch those amazing classics, love them, rewatch them and then check out The Voices.
Are you back? Good. Did some of you never leave? Even better. Are you prepared for some some mild spoilers? Of course you are, but remember, I warned you.
I gave that urgent-call-to-action not only as a ringing endorsement of The Voices, but also as an experiment for you to ensure maximum enjoyment, based upon an assumption of your taste in film. What did those movies have in common? Well, they’re great films for people who are not easily offended. Black Comedies traditionally feature morally flexible characters, gallows style humor and a touch of violence for shock, and The Voices is no different. If those films didn’t offend you then neither will this one. In fact, you are the target audience for this movie and you need to see this.
You see, I had a realization on my second viewing that if I had known less about the premise the more I probably would have enjoyed it — and I enjoyed it very much. My friend Bryan first saw The Truman Show without having any idea of what the plot was about. He skipped the trailer, didn’t catch the TV ad, and never bothered to look at the poster. He even walked into the theater late, missing the opening scene explaining the premise that Jim Carrey’s life was secretly being filmed. Bryan told me afterwards, trying to figure out the reality of Truman’s situation made the movie even better, and I contend a similar experience would work wonders with The Voices.
Are you still with me? Have I grabbed your attention? Do you want me to quit pussyfooting around the catnip and get to the review? Should I just poop or get out of the litter box? Alright. Here we go.
The Voices stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a shy but likable guy, working a factory assembly line in a small, northwestern town. He is socially awkward, but Jerry aims to please, and although he doesn’t have any friends, his co-workers seem to like him. Jerry is lonely but he’s a gentle soul who sees beauty in the world around him. He lives alone in an apartment above an abandoned bowling alley and cherishes the companionship of his talking cat and dog. After summoning the courage to ask, Fiona, his office crush, out on date things take a turn for the worst when Jerry accidentally murders her. Jerry knows right from wrong and feels terribly guilty, but when Fiona’s disembodied head (who lives in his refrigerator) tells Jerry she’s lonely he takes it upon himself to bring her a friend. Horror, hilarity and pathos ensue.
Did you see what I did there? The film brilliantly takes a similar approach with its story. You’re presented with a reality that seems ordinary, maybe even stylistically heightened, but then slowly pulls back the curtain to reveal it is anything but normal. The Voices is a film that could easily have been a disaster, bordering on exploitation, but with a strong script, an ambitious director and a talented leading man, it is actually something quite special. It is demented, to be sure, but only in the best possible way.
This film succeeds primarily on the strength of Ryan Reynolds performances (plural). I have often contended that he is one of the most gifted actors of his generation, who just happens to have the worst luck and/or agent. The guy is handsome, charismatic and talented but he’s never really had a hit film that showcased his range. Van Wilder put him on the map but it seemed to go straight to DVD. The Proposal was big at the box office but really it was a Sandra Bullock vehicle. Buried was a sleeper and The Croods doesn’t count. Oh, and I completely forgot about Definitely, Maybe. Do you remember Definitely, Maybe because I sure didn’t. I had to look that one up. Reynolds filmography is adorned with a series of bombs, paydays, cameos and sleepers and, while The Voices certainly doesn’t change this status quo, I’m here to say this is definitely his best film.
Jerry is a complicated character. He’s innocent, and sweet but he’s also delusional and disturbed. That’s a tough tightrope to walk for any actor and the script demands Jerry to run a gambit of emotions. The wrong actor could easily lose the audience’s sympathy, but Reynolds nails it. Jerry needs to be charming but awkward. Deranged yet endearing. He is not Norman, Dexter, Hannibal or any other killer we’ve ever seen before. He is probably the first cinematic serial killer I’ve felt sorry for. Jerry’s a great guy, it’s just he can’t stop listening to the voices that tell him to do terrible things. It is these voices that makes the movie really unique.
Jerry’s pets talk to him. His dog Bosco has a supportive, “aw, shucks” voice that comes to tell Jerry he’s a “good boy”. Unfortunately, his cat, Mr. Whiskers, talks to him too. He’s a mean-spirited, vulgar Scottsman that drops F-bombs more than furballs and completely steals the show. Since Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are actually manifestations of Jerry’s psyche it made sense to Reynolds that he portray these voices himself. He even needed to convince the director that he could create distinct and unrecognizable voices for these characters, and you’ll be delighted with the results. I and several of my friends watched the movie never realizing Ryan Reynolds effectively portrayed no less than 5 characters in the film and each and every one was fantastic. Mr. Whiskers alone should endear any fans of comedies featuring foul mouthed characters juxtaposed as icons of innocence (see Bad Santa, South Park, and Death to Smoochy).
While The Voices is definitely Ryan Reynolds rodeo it’s important to mention his supporting human cast for they are just as good. Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton are terrific as Lisa and Fiona, respectively. They play Jerry’s co-workers who become entangled in a dangerous love-triangle. Jerry loves Fiona and Lisa loves Jerry but Fiona just isn’t into Jerry and Jerry doesn’t notice Lisa. These relationships make for some of Jerry’s most endearing scenes but ultimately they start building tension once Mr. Whiskers starts giving him bad ideas.
Anna Kendrick is a joy, as always, but I really have to tip my hat to Gemma Arterton. I’ve never much cared for her films but she completely impressed me as Fiona . . . especially when she is reduced to a talking, decapitated head. Clearly, Arterton was having fun with this role but it was also clear that the entire cast was enthusiastic and invested in making the movie.
Of course it’s easy to give all the credit to the actors or the script, but what’s really impressive about The Voices is the woman who harnessed all of these elements together. Marjane Satrapi is a filmmaker I had never heard of before — well, I thought I’d never heard of her but I bet you a Coke you’ll recognize her claim to fame — and even though I still can’t pronounce her name I was so impressed with her adaptation of the script I’d read, I’m now determine to watch her other films. Marjane Satrapi is the French/Iranian artist most famous for her graphic novel (and animated feature) Persepolis. The Voices is only her fourth feature, third live-action movie, and first English language film, but for me, this film debuts Ms. Satrapi as a considerable talent. Not only does she have a vibrant visual style but her ability to balance comedy, drama, tension, romance and horror are commendable. I’m amazed more people aren’t talking about her.
Every frame in The Voices is picturesque and colorful, representing the idyllic world view of Jerry’s skewed mind. Corporate logos have pastel hues, clothing is vibrant, and the lighting and set design are almost theatrical. In the script, Jerry’s world is described as vibrant as “Toon Town” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but Satrapi is more subtle. She isn’t so blatant to telegraph to the audience that they are viewing reality through a rose-colored lens. Satrapi drops hints that Jerry’s viewpoint is warped, but it’s only later, when the film’s perspective shifts away from Jerry, that the audience is let on to the sinister nature of reality.
If I were to have any complaints about The Voices it is that Jerry’s world might be a little too subtle. In the script there is a much more abstract and darker reveal. Jerry begins taking medication to stop the voices and his world becomes bleak, desaturated and claustrophobic. The script indicates that the movie’s aspect ratio should be reduced from widescreen to a square and that the audio channel should be muted and montone. Sadly, Satrapi never gets that creative, nor does she venture into David Fincher territory during these scenes (as the script suggests), so I couldn’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity. Still, that is the danger of reading a script or a novel before it is later adapted into a film. The director’s responsibility is to present their personal vision, and although there is one short scene that sticks out like a sore thumb — seriously, I’m convinced it was a pick up scene, filmed on the weekend by a film school intern with an iphone — I was greatly impressed with what Satrapi achieved in terms of the look, pacing and performances. And the ending, which is very messed up in the script, is brilliantly interpreted and executed. The Voices is a small scale film but it was a complicated one to pull off, and I’m happy to say Marjane Satrapi and Ryan Reynolds deliver.
The Voices is a comedy that is both tragic and absurd. There’s a theme of isolation running throughout the story that presents both killer and victim as sympathetic and lonely people. In the midst of this dark, bloody comedy there is a tender scene when you realize everybody, not just schizophrenics, hear voices. Voices of doubt, voices of indulgence, and voices of conscious. You can’t help but see Jerry’s dilemma as an exaggerated parable for our everyday struggles. By the end, what I think is marvelous about The Voices is that you’ll most likely have a smile on your face. There’s a sense of closure accompanied by a charming credit sequence I haven’t seen the likes of since There’s Something About Mary and you’ll probably even want to download the final song onto your ipod afterwards.
The Voices is a showcase for some creativity and talent that you don’t see in typical, mainstream films. If you have an open mind (or a dark sense of humor) you really need to check it out. If that’s not enough to convince you just know that there’s a conga line montage, a Chinese Elvis impersonator and a Ryan Reynolds dance number!
This is one of those rare films where the marketing nailed the tone of the film. The poster and the trailer did a great job selling the premise without revealing many of the surprises. One of which is a surprisingly amount of compassion for such a messed up character.