Few movies are so inconsistent in tone that I’m compelled to comment about that one aspect, but such is The Voices, staring Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Self/Less), Gemma Arterton (Byzantium), and Anna Kendrick (Up In The Air, Pitch Perfect). I stumbled across this the other week, and was intrigued by the premise, and the fact it seemed like an odd choice for Reynolds, whom I consider a solid lead actor. The poster itself sets up a quirky, offbeat black comedy, but like many posters that try to sell a different kind of product to the public, this one is grossly misleading.
The Voices is the story of Jerry (Reynolds) the new guy at a bathtub factory. Jerry is clinically nice, but this hides the fact that he is a deranged individual with a track record of not taking his anti-psychotic meds. The poster gives it away, but the movie doesn’t play it as any kind of reveal: Jerry lives with his dog, Bosco, and his cat, Mr. Whiskers, who talk to him as if they were people. Neither of them are the voice of reason – Bosco placates, in a dumb-sounding drawl, Mr. Whiskers incites in a profanity-laden Scottish accent. Now, I don’t know why these are the voices that were chosen for the movie, and because the movie contains key reveals about other details, it would have been nice to have seen that. The Scottish accent is bad, but there’s a reasonable explanation for it, so no harm no foul.
I had some major issues with the movie – specifically, I had issues with the talking animals bit. Yeah, I get that the animals are not really talking, but in the context of movies being a visual medium, to all intents and purposes, the movie contains talking animals, and I mostly hated that part of it. This is where the movie is tonally schizophrenic. The scenes that include them are played for laffs initially, and it flat out did not work for me. In fact in Act 1 I really questioned whether this movie was going to go the distance. At one point early on it struck me that Ryan Reynolds was too big a choice in this role, and that someone like Paul Dano would have been better – I still feel that’s true, though that’s somewhat me typecasting Dano. It’s funny that Deadpool is almost seen as some kind of comeback movie for Reynolds, who probably hasn’t been out of a job for years – but he’s a B actor, and has spent a number of years treading water in some unremarkable stuff, occasionally resurfacing with good work in better written movies, like Buried and The Proposal. For the majority of the first half of The Voices, Reynolds just seemed a bad choice, and it’s no coincidence that the movie is a bit of a mess up until this point.
I know many people who like this movie will like it because of the forced quirkiness of the premise, but that was the least interesting part for me. In fact, the movie almost plays like a British black comedy up until the midpoint, even though it’s reportedly based on a Ukranian internet series. The small supporting cast of Arterton, Kendrick, and the office “big girl” Alison (Ella Smith) is so broad it could easily have stepped out of a British sitcom. There’s almost no subtlety attempted by American TV writer Michael R Perry in this adaptation, which is lazy writing. When the second half hits, the movie becomes much different in tone and content, and largely redeems itself well, I should say. The transition here is in the form of Jerry agreeing to take his anti-psychotic medication for the first time in a while and we finally see the truth of Jerry’s existence. It’s a jarring scene, but it doesn’t last long enough, and it sets up an interesting question – if the movie (which uses the “unreliable narrator” device) is seen through the lens of Jerry’s mental illness, and his actual reality is that dark, what is his workplace really like? Through Jerry’s unmedicated perspective, it’s a smooth-running factory where everything looks neat and organized, the work seems undemanding, he gets to wear pink overalls, and everyone is mostly nice. A glimpse while medicated would have been nice. In a way this part of the movie is also explained well quite literally in The Matrix when Cypher explains why he double crossed everyone: why bother with the harshness of reality, when the blissfulness of ignorance is preferable. Jerry makes the same choice as Cypher and decides to return to his own virtual reality.
Even though I liked the second half far better than the first, I still came away from the movie with some nagging questions, none of which I’ll really go into here because they deal with specific plot points. The movie’s third act takes the movie in a standard thriller route, which is almost as disappointing as the first act’s attempt to be irreverent – you might think I’m an unsophisticated movie watcher who gets turned off by attempts to do something different with tired old genres, but that’s not the case – I just like these attempts to be bold and well done so that the finished piece feels like a unified organic whole. Unfortunately, The Voices feels like three movies being crammed into one story, resulting in a disjointed final cut.
In the end, Reynolds does a good job with the material. The second half is kind to all of the elements – both he and Kendrick do good work, and the reveals are done well enough to add dimension to the story and characters, even if the ending is kind of flat and uninspired. Don’t get me started about the musical number that accompanies the credits, though. I thought it was absolutely horrendous, a much bigger creative misstep than Act 1 – but at least by the time it comes around the story has already ended, so not terrible, and you don’t have to sit through it.
There was a much bigger and better movie in The Voices than this script allowed for. Played straight, this could have been a great thriller that could have found time to say something about mental health issues and how to deal with them, and the side effects of medication. It could have still told the same core story – sure, you wouldn’t have gotten your talking cat and dog, but I would have been totally okay with it.