Director: Marjane Satrapi
Screenplay: Michael R. Perry
Producers: Matthew Rhodes, Adi Shankar, Roy Lee, Spencer Silna
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 104 minutes
A Chinese Elvis impersonator. An overweight white woman rapping. A foul mouthed, Scottish cat. If you find any of these concepts funny in and of themselves then you will probably love Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices. The Voices is so desperate to establish its quirky credentials that it bombards us with these images in the first half hour of the film. Unfortunately, this attack on the senses and, or so the director hopes, the funny bone is not enough to counterbalance the darker elements of the film when they arise soon afterwards. Black comedy is one of the hardest sub-genres to pull off gracefully, particularly if you’re taking on a topic like mental illness, something which is often made light of in a questionable manner. This repetition has the dangerous effect of dulling our sensitivities to real life sufferers and viewing them with a cautious fear rather than an empathetic desire to help. There have been scores of movie madmen played for laughs prior to Ryan Reynolds’ Jerry but it doesn’t make the underthought central premise of The Voices any easier to stomach.
The Voices is the story of Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds), an amiable worker at a bathtub factory in the quaint town of Milton. Jerry is in therapy for a mental condition inherited from his mother, for which he is supposed to be taking pills. Jerry hesitates to do so however, because then he would no longer be able to converse with his pets, an evil Scottish cat called Mr. Whiskers and a sympathetic, kindly dog called Bosco. When Jerry takes an interest in his colleague Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a freak accident with a deer and a kitchen knife leads to him accidentally killing her. Under the guidance of Mr. Whiskers and the disapproving eye of Bosco, Jerry dismembers the body and stores it in Tupperware, while he keeps Fiona’s head intact in his refrigerator. Soon the head begins talking to Jerry as well, asking for a friend to keep it company. So Jerry begins to romantically pursue another colleague, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the one woman who seems like she could set Jerry’s life back on track.
There are no topics that are too sacred to make a comedy about but crucial to the success of the comedy is the angle you come at the subject from. Howard Zieff’s 1989 film The Dream Team is a comedy about four mentally ill men who are accidentally set loose on the street of New York when a day trip to a baseball game goes awry. The Dream Team has often been criticised for its light treatment of mental illness, in the same way that Pretty Woman has been slammed for its fairy tale depiction of prostitution. The Dream Team made no great attempt to show us the causes or intricacies of its characters’ respective illnesses, it just used them as an excuse to have the characters flail around, throw chairs through windows and take their clothes off in public. However, The Dream Team, in its trivialisation of the subject, actually emerges as a more comfortable watch than The Voices for that very reason. The Voices, you see, wants us to believe that amongst its gory set-pieces and talking animal whimsy there is a real study of one man’s psychological state and in its failings to accurately portray this beyond the broadest of clichés, it reinforces the myth of the prevalent murderous psychotic. For all its claims of originality, The Voices seems magnetically drawn to certain well-worn tropes even when they are completely unnecessary. For instance, the film initially offers the perfectly plausible reason of heredity for Jerry’s condition but, perhaps sensing that this allowed for less dramatic flashbacks or less easily-won sympathy, the script then also casually posits child abuse as a further explanation. This denigration of child mistreatment to a lazy reveal has been used by scriptwriters again and again, usually as a final abrupt and largely unexplored revelation. There’s just time to pull off the cloth and shock the audience before rolling the credits. To be fair to The Voices, it doesn’t dwell on this much and it is revealed as one factor of the problem fairly early on in the story, but must it be there at all? It may be an attempt to build up a bigger, more coherent picture of Jerry’s condition but does this particular type of trauma always have to be a factor?
Another problem with The Voices is its wildly shifting tone. There is plenty of room in a film of this kind for comedy and drama to coexist but the film is always too frontloaded with one or the other, rather than blending the two. For a while in its second act the tone alters so much that the film seems to be becoming primarily a drama and some of this drama is handled quite well by director Marjane Satrapi, whose previous work includes the brilliant animated film Persepolis. Jerry’s courtship of the winsome Lisa is an especially nice strand and the climax of their happy time together achieves some real tension. Unfortunately it is at this moment that the film slams clumsily back into the quirky comedy world, with Jerry slowly accumulating more talking heads in his fridge. The horror film elements that the film touches on begin to override the attempted realism of Jerry’s backstory, so that characters behave in the most ludicrous way just because the plot demands it. In an all-out horror romp we’re willing to forgive the characters their idiotic behaviour if it places them in the position that the game demands them to be in. But in a film with pretensions to psychological relevance, the idea that Jerry’s colleagues, in the face of the evidence they unearth, would just keep turning up at his house stretches credibility beyond breaking point.
In terms of performances, The Voices is fairly solid. Ryan Reynolds has never been a favourite of mine (my first experience of him was Just Friends, a film which immediately entered my Worst of All Time list) but he does a fair job with the material he’s given to work with, depicting Jerry as a sympathetic man struggling with his inner turmoil. Reynolds also provides the voices to his talking pets, although here he does less well, with the Scottish voice for Mr. Whiskers recalling the tired accent Mike Myers seemed to wheel out for every other film he made in the 90s and early 00s. Gemma Arterton is fun as a severed head, if a little confused in her portrayal of Fiona as a whole person. Through Jerry’s eyes she is a stereotype English woman, spouting phrases like “You wanker”, “Tally Ho” and “God save the Queen”, which allows her to ham it up amusingly. But there are scenes early in the film where her motivation is entirely impossible to grasp. One scene in which Jerry joins Fiona and her colleagues for a drink was so flat that I genuinely didn’t understand who was attracted to whom or why anyone did anything! As Lisa, Anna Kendrick is very appealing and probably the film’s most sympathetic character, although her abrupt exit also marks the moment the film goes truly off the rails.
In its third act, The Voices throws the rule book out of the window and just plumps for whichever route it fancies taking. It smashes together elements of suspense horror, kidnap thriller, psychological drama, crime drama and even musical with a disconcertingly ham-fisted thump. The plot seems almost improvised in its collapse. Having lost its way so badly, The Voices commits emphatic suicide with its credit sequence in which Jerry, having died from smoke inhalation, appears in a glitzy showbiz suit and meets his victims, his mother and father and Jesus (that's right, Jesus!), who all perform an upbeat song and dance number together. Such an audacious comedic gambit might have worked in a film that was more certain of its tone but here it just feels like the writer admitting defeat and shrugging off his inability to create a satisfying ending by offering us something knowingly ludicrous. It’s the final nail in an already well-nailed coffin.
The Voices is released by Arrow Films on DVD, Blu-Ray and Steelbook (the latter exclusive to Zaavi) on 13th July 2015. The extras include cast and crew interviews, deleted and extended scenes, footage of the pet voice recordings and a publicity stunt involving a head in a fridge. Behind the scenes footage and animatics are exclusively included on the Blu-Ray edition.