Allison Janney, Mila Kunis’ crime satire is a chaos of mediocrity

Breaking News In Yuba County ought to have been much more assured in treatment to do justice to its talented cast, where sharper humour and cutting-edge suspense would have helped

To quote a cliché, the best intentions are lost if the execution goes bust. Breaking News In Yuba County flaunts a cracker of an idea and an impressive cast, but the crime comedy satire never quite manages to scale an engaging high. Rather, the effort is lost amidst a chaos of mediocrity.

Director Tate Taylor’s film has the incredible Allison Janney at the centre of its plot. She plays Sue Buttons, a middle-aged woman in smalltown United States who is largely ignored at home and outside. Life hits a new low for Sue on her birthday when she catches her banker husband Karl (Matthew Modine) in the act, in bed with another woman at a motel. The twist in Sue’s tale comes by chance with Karl dying of a heart attack. Hungry for attention and love, she sees a sudden chance to be in the public glare. So, she hides Karl’s death and reports him as missing to the police, and goes all out to court the media limelight. But as Sue becomes talking point among locals, she discovers there might have been more to Karl than she ever imagined. The story is really meant to take off at this point, as Sue gets caught in a dangerous web that involves local mafia, dirty money and random revelations.

The film marks the big-screen debut of screenwriter Amanda Idoko, who creates a premise that would seem just apt for a black comedy pitch. As Sue doggedly gets on with overcoming a mire of lies, deceit and confusion early on in the script after her husband dies, there is an attempt to imagine what a neglected, desperate woman can be capable of, to get back at those that walked all over her. Idoko, also credited as an executive producer, tries infusing satire, too, as the narrative sets up an undercurrent critique of suburban America and its lifestyle that can be cold, dismissive and brutally selfish.

The intent of satire would seem intrepid, given this is a commercial Hollywood film primarily catering to the American audience. The outcome, however, is not entirely a success.

For satire to work, it is important for the storytelling process to strikes a cohesive balance between a film’s quota of humour and its darker strains of realism. Breaking News In Yuba County would seem superficial in every way, and the only mystery about the crime drama that hits you as the minutes roll is why director Taylor and his creative team dourly refuse to invest a deeper context while discussing human psychology and its subconscious tendency towards crime, which lies at the core of the plot.

The film could have still clicked, if only as a pure mainstream entertainer and little else, had the overall execution created room for oddball humour and taut thrills. For a crime drama supposedly hinged on comedy and suspense, the narrative surprisingly comes across as too banal and low-key to sustain audience interest. The story starts off on a rather dull note and never really picks up, and a runtime of barely 96 minutes could seem stretched after a point. The comic element hardly ever manages to imbibe the quick-witted quality you would expect in a film of this genre, and the suspense, broadly blending melodrama with some violence, remains pedestrian. In the end, when it is time to tie the loose ends, the finale lacks ample imagination to give the story a satisfactory closure.

The outcome is Sue’s plight, as well as her journey into a darker space, is mostly laced with unconvincing drama. For the element of suspense to intrigue, it was important that the audience identify emotionally with Sue, which never happens. She and her world end up appearing too synthetic to rouse or sustain interest, leave alone strike an emotional bond with the viewer. It’s almost as if you would end up not caring about what happens to whom in this story after a point.

The redeeming feature for the film mainly lies in the fact that Taylor and team have utilised the idea of diversity well, while setting up a picture of suburban America. Taylor is best known for his multiple Oscar-nominated drama of 2011, The Help, which boasted of a supremely talented, all-female and mixed origin star cast (Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Allison Janney). In his new film, the filmmaker lets Janney take centrestage, with the likes of Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Awkwafina, Samira Wiley, Wanda Sykes, Ellen Barkin and Juliette Lewis comprising an interesting primary cast. The success of Taylor’s attempt lies in the fact that the race and gender diversity blends seamlessly in the fictional world he creates, without resorting to social cliches that often override these prototypes. At the same time, he works with a script that leaves room for protagonists that display distinct individual traits.

Interesting characters, in turn, make space for some fine acting. Pick of the cast, of course, is Allison Janney in an author backed role. Janney, a trusted character artiste in Hollywood films and on American television, essays her lead role of Sue with quiet resilience, morphing effortlessly from a hapless victim to a calculating limelight moth. Mila Kunis adds essential zest to her role as Sue’s half-sister and the self-seeking TV journalist Nancy while Awkwafina is a livewire as the ruthless mobster Mina. Overall, the cast manages to sustain the psychological edge that the story tries serving up while mixing comedy and crime drama.

Breaking News In Yuba County ought to have been much more assured as a feature film, to do justice to its talented cast as well as its inherent satirical comment. Sharper humour and more cutting-edge suspense would have helped, too.

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