In his last few outings, director Tate Taylor has been trying his hand at several different genres. Over the last five years, he's worked in the fields of thriller, horror, and action within the studio system. However, whilst proving his versatility, these works have often succumbed to the same problem: they feel far more imitative to their genre than they do innovative. 'The Girl On The Train' takes a lot of cues from 'Gone Girl'. 'Ava' plays like a poor man's 'John Wick'. While, if you took out Octavia Spencer's wild performance, there's little to distinguish 'Ma' amongst Blumhouse's vast library of horror.
Taylor is clearly trying to branch out, but with each passing genre, he's straining to find his voice. These films feel more like they're following a blueprint than they do a vision, aiming to replicate someone else's success rather than forge their own. As a result, the work feels hollow. Sure, there's a workmanlike quality to them, and Taylor has no issue attracting big-name talent. Nonetheless, these films play like a filmmaker wildly unsure of where he is best suited. And sadly, these same pitfalls rear their head in Taylor's latest, 'Breaking News in Yuba County', a dark comedy that's painfully indebted to the works of the Coen brothers.
Sue Buttons (Allison Janney, 'I, Tonya', 'Bad Education') is an unappreciated housewife. She has to buy her own birthday cake. Her loved ones neglect her. The only thing keeping her sane is her daily affirmations. When she catches her husband sleeping with another woman, the shock causes him to die of a heart attack. Sensing an opportunity, Sue buries his body and proclaims her husband missing. But it isn't long before a variety of characters want answers. Sue quickly finds herself in the crosshairs of a hard-nosed cop, an aspiring gangster, a ruthless hitman, and her journalist sister hellbent on telling her story. As Sue falls deeper into her growing celebrity, she leads them all down a spiralling bloody path.
So, as one can gather from that synopsis, films like 'Fargo' and 'Burn After Reading' loom large over 'Breaking News in Yuba County'. The film aims to emulate many of the same characteristics, notably the ability to alternate between being zany and sickly. But while the Coens' ability to do this is unequivocal, Taylor stands out like a deer in headlights. 'Breaking News in Yuba County' is a misguided mess to near colossal proportions - almost impressively to a point. For all the chatter of Taylor's shifting materials, dark comedy is the genre he has the least handle on.
Scenes are clumsily pieced together with no regard to urgency or energy. There's no fluidity to the proceedings, with an array of awkwardly staged scenes pleading for even a morsel of confidence. Say what you will about a film like 'The Help', which has aged like milk since its release, you can still recognise a sense of confidence behind the camera. A misplaced confidence, definitely, but certainly one to the film's benefit. Even though a film like 'Ma' doesn't work, at least Taylor looks like he's enjoying himself. But when speaking of 'Breaking News in Yuba County', Taylor appears consistently uncertain of how to put his best foot forward.
Several of these performances feel disjointed and confused, but that's indicative of the film as a whole. 'Breaking News in Yuba County' is a toothless farce with little comprehension for the rules of its game.
The best kind of dark comedies, like the ones that the Coens can do so effortlessly, are the ones that can merge this conflicting mix of fun and discomfort with ease. 'Breaking News in Yuba County' manages to achieve the exact opposite, with an overly aggressive tendency to constantly try to convince you that things are totally insane and you're having so much fun.
Moreover, when it comes to taking away the wrong lessons, this certainly applies to the film's unremitting use of violence. 'Breaking News in Yuba County' isn't afraid to get bloody, several characters meet very grisly demises, but this factor falls flat almost instantly. The use of violence doesn't serve a purpose. Similar to how it's always trying to convince you of the fun you're having, a lot of the blood and injury appears to be utilised solely to show off how gruesome it's willing to go. It's present to impress those watching rather than to progress the narrative. Meaning, as a result, it often comes off as needlessly gratuitous and outstays its welcome very quickly.
As for the characters, there isn't much to say, as the large ensemble is continually let down by what they have in front of them. Taylor has assembled a fantastic group of actors alongside Janney, including Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Awkwafina, Jimmi Simpson and Juliette Lewis, among others, but their presence often feels in vain. These people are playing caricatures, meaning they are relying heavily on the tone set by the material. And try as they may, they can never quite transcend what they have to work with. The way violence is utilised makes many of these characters overtly mean-spirited. While, if we're discussing humour, the film's screenplay doesn't provide much for this group to flex their comedic muscle.
Several of these performances feel disjointed and confused, but that's indicative of the film as a whole. 'Breaking News in Yuba County' is a toothless farce with little comprehension for the rules of its game. Like most Tate Taylor films of late, it's a film that bears an unhealthy resemblance to its antecedents but very little of their verve. It has plenty to say but nothing that sticks. And in this weird period of genre surfing, dark comedy is not the solution for Tate Taylor.