SXSW Film Review: ‘Tone-Deaf’Variety — Dennis Harvey
Intergenerational conflict is only likely to get worse as Millennials grasp a problem-filled future for which they already blame baby boomers, while boomers hone their dislike of what many perceive as a generation of brats. No doubt many interesting films will riff on that theme. But their number won’t include “Tone-Deaf,” a horror-comedy caricature in which a malevolent old fogey squares off against an entitled young princess. Too cartoonishly broad to qualify as black comedy, and with no one to root for, this disappointing latest from Richard Bates Jr. (“Excision,” “Suburban Gothic”) isn’t funny, suspenseful or outrageous enough to satisfy genre fans. Others are unlikely to bite when Saban Films does a day-and-date release later this year.
Bates’ script starts with a running gag that elicits just tepid amusement the first time, then keeps resurfacing to diminished returns over the next nearly 90 minutes: We meet our heroine as a child performing a recital, where the audience is bewildered when this supposed piano prodigy fingers a minute or two of discordant noodling.
A couple decades later, Olive (Amanda Crew of “Silicon Valley”) still dreams of a concert piano career, but has settled for a less-than-dreamy day job and live-in boyfriend. In the course of one day, her sour self-absorbtion gets her fired and prompts said boyfriend to walk out. Neither is any great loss, but frankly, it’s doubtful Olive can do better — she’s no prize herself.
Various confidantes including her equally selfish, oblivious, commune-dwelling mother Crystal (Kim Delaney) advise Olive to refresh by getting out of L.A. and spending a weekend in the presumably restorative countryside. A few clicks get her booked at a duly impressive, sprawling manse in Ventura County. But staying there is more unsettling than restful, due mostly to the thinly disguised hostility of owner Harvey (Robert Patrick), a widower who may have dementia. He definitely has issues, and frequently relates them directly to the camera, all of them revolving around how much he hates this danged modern world and particularly its obnoxious young whippersnappers.
Olive and Harvey are both shrill cartoons; there’s no depth to them, or much logic to their actions. He soon goes off the rails entirely, turning on family friend Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles), then simply starts to kill strangers. Unaware that she’s probably next, Olive goes on an internet-hookup date with a seemingly OK guy (Tate Ellington) who turns out to be another psycho, later doing LSD because — well, why not. Finally the two principals square off in bloody mortal combat, as Crystal, her maternal instincts finally awakened, and a smitten younger commune resident (Johnny Pemberton) try to drive to the rescue.
“It’s not you, it’s just everything you represent,” Harvey says, trying to explain why he’s so eager to see Olive dead. That’s not a bad line, and “Tone-Deaf” has a few more like it. But the film overestimates its wit, with too much emphasis on dialogue for even a jokey genre-hybrid film. The satire of a bitchy, shallow Millennial and a curmudgeonly, conservative boomer itself comes off tritely misanthropic, cornering the actors into strenuous one-dimensional turns that aren’t nearly as entertaining as intended.
There’s some imagination evident in scenes like Harvey’s occasional hallucinations (where he’s frightened by pushy women and gays in a surreal all-white setting), but nothing here quite works completely. And it’s not for lack of trying, though this is one of those movies where the obviousness of the effort becomes part and parcel of its failure to fly.
The film’s assembly is competent and reasonably colorful, but in the end that professional sheen only underscores how “Tone-Deaf” keeps plugging away at a story and character concept that fall short right out of the gate.