'Breaking News in Yuba County': Film Review

'Breaking News in Yuba County' Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of AFM
Cartoonish to a fault.
2/12/2021

Allison Janney toplines a starry ensemble, including Awkwafina and Mila Kunis, in director Tate Taylor's darkly comic look at the culture of fame and the tabloid media.

In the middle of the closing credits for Tate Taylor's new film, the director inserts a minute-long postscript scene. It's an exchange between the lead character, played by Allison Janney, and a talk show host portrayed by Juliette Lewis. Their eyes are wild with a delicious madness, and that brief coda contains all the satiric snap that the preceding 90 minutes so sorely lack.

The story of a woman who rises out of her put-upon anonymity by spinning a tabloid-fodder lie, Breaking News in Yuba County features a pitch-perfect Janney at the center of a game cast of well-knowns. Yet as it fumbles through its unwieldy mix of crime-caper farce, social commentary and black comedy, the genre it most solidly nails is the one that poses the burning question "Why did so many accomplished actors sign on to this?"

On the page, the screenplay by Amanda Idoko (The Goldbergs) might have been alluring with its skewed slant on our media-centric culture. But in the finished product, the jabs hardly feel fresh and don't quite land. This is a tale that revolves around self-promotion and the quest for those 15 minutes of fame, and yet social media doesn't even get a mention. That might not be a hitch if the movie spun a truly seductive web of crazy. But the narrative insanity, while studded with a few well-placed zingers, mostly feels strained, shuttling between the preposterous, the barbed and the halfhearted.

Janney's nuanced performance never falters, though. Her Sue Buttons, a middle-aged suburbanite, becomes the unlikely engine of a comedy of errors whose repercussions are ghastly. Everything about Sue is polite, from her beige nail polish to her forbearance with the rude people she encounters in the course of her day. As Breaking News opens, affirmations are her soundtrack and she knows she needs to break out of her unwanted cloak of invisibility.

The turning point is her birthday, a day that goes unnoticed not just at the call center where she works but also at home. Fueled with the power of "I matter," she catches her cad of a husband, banker Karl (Matthew Modine), in flagrante with his mistress (Bridget Everett). The confrontation ends badly — and permanently — for Karl, whose heart gives out. In the movie's first dose of full-strength "huh?," Sue buries the evidence. Widowhood might bestow a certain amount of attention, but Sue is hungry for something bigger, the kind of focus that a TV personality (Lewis) is devoting to the case of a missing girl. And so she announces to the world that her husband is missing.

What Sue doesn't know is that Karl, thanks to his ex-con brother, Petey (Jimmi Simpson), was sucked into the money-laundering scheme of bowling alley owner Kim (Keong Sim), and had yet to complete the latest illegal transaction. That naturally puts a couple of sadistic henchmen on the trail of the undeposited cash: Kim's bully daughter, Mina (Awkwafina), and the glowering Ray (Clifton Collins Jr. — who just received Sundance's best actor honors for Jockey and wisely doesn't say much here).

Sue's sister, Nancy (Mila Kunis), is a local TV reporter, and when she says, "Let me help you," what she means is "I need this scoop." That they're actually half-sisters is revealed in a particularly sharp bit of dialogue, one whose incisiveness sets it apart in a movie that proceeds mostly through the broadest of strokes.

Sibling connection notwithstanding, the newly publicity-savvy Sue opts to bring her story to a larger audience than Nancy can provide. She embroiders her fabricated tale with a sensational angle to catch the attention of Lewis' Gloria Michaels — who professes compassion onscreen ("I'm on your side" is her catchphrase) and otherwise oozes self-importance and contempt.

As the police detective who sees through Sue's story, Regina Hall rises above the rising tide of cartoonishness with some smooth double takes and no-nonsense energy. The rest of the cast's energy is more on the order of deeply unmodulated playacting — Wanda Sykes as Petey's furniture-store boss, Ellen Barkin as her girlfriend, the diminishing returns of Awkwafina's menacing gangster routine. There are also valiant attempts to make random and unconvincing characters ring true (Samira Wiley as Petey's pregnant-with-twins partner). The assemblage of bad hair and the jaunty score signal that we're not supposed to take any of this seriously. Still, it's distracting when the costumes and interiors have more character-defining subtlety than the barely dimensional characters themselves.

The Mississippi-shot feature maintains a distinctly Southern sensibility even though it's supposed to be set in a quiet corner of inland California, but Taylor (The Help, Get on Up, Ma) nabs the story's small-town vibe. As a spoof of crime clichés — the convoluted schemes that don't add up except as drivers of plot, the ultraviolence — the movie makes its points. But the flat action gestures toward a level of comic delirium that it never achieves (with the exception of that end-credits sequence). The bursts of brutality, explicit and suggested, land somewhere on a spectrum between Tarantino and Looney Tunes, and not in a good way — there's a sour stupidity to the cruelty, and it quickly grows exhausting.

Yet throughout the film, Janney is a marvel. She wordlessly communicates Sue Buttons' caught-in-the-headlights calculations each time someone questions the gaps in her story. She shows us how a long-overlooked woman comes alive by lying and manipulating, thrives in the faux warmth of all the media concern, and in the process becomes a self-satisfied monster, obsessed with the idea of having and telling stories — even an underpowered mashup like this one.

Distributor: American International Pictures/MGM
Production companies: AGC Studios, Fibonacci Films, Sarma Films Ltd., Ingenious Media, Nine Stories, Wyola Entertainment, The Black List
Cast: Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina. Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Samira Wiley, Jimmi Simpson, Clifton Collins Jr., Matthew Modine, Ellen Barkin, Bridget Everett, Dominic Burgess, Keong Sim, Chris Lowell, T.C. Matherne, Susan Schwan McPhail, Jock McKissic, Lucy Faust
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Amanda Idoko
Producers: Franklin Leonard, Jake Gyllenhall, Riva Marker, John Norris, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Greg Shapiro, Miguel Palos Jr., Grek Clark, Victoria Hill, Amit Pandya, Stephen Spence, Allison Janney, Amanda Idoko, Robin Mulcahy Fisichella
Director of photography: Christina Voros
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Editor: Lucy Donaldson
Music: Jeff Beal
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee

96 minutes