United States/Germany. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, 2014. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver. 103 minutes.
Last week, in my review of Self/less, I wrote that Ryan Reynolds “will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor.” After seeing him in the black comedy The Voices, the latest film from multi-hyphenate Marjane Satrapi (she wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Persepolis, then co-wrote and co-directed its animated adaptation before moving on to live-action filmmaking with Chicken with Plums), I won’t entirely walk back that assessment of his talent but I am willing to accept that he might be a better actor than I realized. (It’s possible my completely justified utter fucking loathing of Van Wilder blinded me.)
Reynolds stars as Jerry, a worker at a bathroom-fixtures factory in a small town so relentlessly pastel-colored it makes the town from Edward Scissorhands look like a set from The Begotten. I mean, he even wears a pink jumpsuit on the job. Jerry has a history of mental illness, part of which manifests itself as hallucinations of his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers talking to him (Reynolds supplying both voices as well, natch). He develops a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), an English expat temp who works in accounting. A series of mishaps ends with Fiona dead by his hand, possibly an accident, possibly not; he’s not really sure. So he cuts off her head and sticks it in her fridge, as one does, and it begins to talk as well. Jerry wonders if he can put himself back on the path of goodness; Bosco, Whiskers, and Fiona all have opinions on that, while Fiona’s co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Jerry’s court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) complicate matters further.
Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry dish out a huge plate of food with this project: it wants to be insightful, it wants to be philosophical, it wants to make some social commentary, and it wants to be funny a specifically tasteless way. I can’t shake the sense that, metaphorically speaking, Satrapi and Perry’s eyes might have been larger than their stomachs. There are certainly bits that don’t seem as thought-through as they should have been, the overall structure’s a bit loose, and let’s be honest, “intelligent, evil, scheming cats versus good-hearted if essentially dumb dogs” has been played out for years.
I can forgive a lot of this because it’s just so damn hilarious, and Reynolds’s performance is key to that. While there are comedic dimensions to Arterton’s performance (especially once she’s a severed head in a fridge) and also Kendrick’s, Reynolds is essentially the comic lynchpin of the film. The pets get a lot of the attention–understandable, because talking animals always do. Plus, when you’ve got Reynolds giving Bosco a dopey Goliath-from-Davey and Goliath drawl (great for lines like “You’re a good man, Jerry. No one’s going to rape you”) and Whiskers the best terrible-but-brilliant fake Scots accent since Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer, it’s hard for them not to steal the scenes.
But they’re a sideshow, not the main event. Jerry is the main event, and the wide-eyed, upbeat naïf with a dark side he can barely acknowledge exists is so completely removed from anything I ever thought I would ever see him do in anything ever that I want to call his performance “unrecognizable.” It’s not, of course, but there were points in which I forgot I was watching Ryan Reynolds, actor. I rarely get that feeling, even when I’m watching actors I legitimately think are great.
Which isn’t to say he’s the only think worth watching in the film. Arterton and Weaver also put in great turns, as does Ella Smith as another member of the accounting department. Aesthetically, the film is a treat, from its opening song about how great the town is to the lovingly retro production design and Satrapi’s impressive camera skills.
But this is, above all, a Reynolds vehicle, and he’s what makes it worth watching during its less-strong moments, such as when it deals with Kendrick (who’s not bad, just kinda miscast), and–I know I sound like a broken record here, I can’t help it–the cat/dog stuff. If dark comedies are your thing, you owe it to yourself to make a bee-line to this one.