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In 'The Voices,' The Dog And The Cat Talk, But The Film Says Little

Fiona (Gemma Arterton) and Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) in<em> The Voices</em>.
Fiona (Gemma Arterton) and Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) in The Voices.

A serial-killer spoof set in a parody of small-town U.S.A., The Voices wants desperately to be bizarre. But it manages just to be a little odd, and that's mostly because its vision of American gothic was crafted on a German soundstage by a Franco-Iranian director.

The screenplay is by veteran TV scripter Michael R. Perry, who stuffed it with Yankee tackiness. Our hero, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), lives above a bowling alley and patronizes a Chinese restaurant where the entertainment is a Mandarin-accented Elvis impersonator. Jerry works in the shipping department of a factory that makes toilets, which is apparently meant to be hilarious. On the job, he and his co-workers wear pink coveralls, a uniform even Vegas-period Elvis couldn't have pulled off.

Jerry is bland and boyish, but a series of flashbacks gradually reveal that his boyhood is precisely the problem: Dad was a bully and Mom, a displaced German, was suicidal. What happened back then explains why Jerry is now under the supervision of a court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) and is supposed to take anti-psychotic drugs.

When Jerry pops those pills, though, life becomes beige. One unbearable consequence is that his dog and cat, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers, stop talking to him. And they're his only friends.

The animals' characterizations are typical of the scenario's conventionality: The dog is easygoing and well-meaning, while the cat is demanding and amoral. Bosco wants to earn the praise, "good boy"; Whiskers encourages Jerry's predatory urges.

The three-way exchanges occasionally rise above the predictable, and provide a couple of the movie's rare laughs. But The Voices follows horror-flick conventions too faithfully to allow much space for witty dialogue.

Reynolds does the voices of Bosco, Whiskers and two other non-human characters, and perhaps it was the burden of keeping them all straight that led the actor to affect such incongruous accents. Whiskers, a small orange tabby, speaks in the deep-voiced burr and bawdy parlance of a Scottish lout.

The brogue might be an engaging quirk if this American travesty weren't so clearly a European product. But the movie is full of foreign inflections, and regularly stalls while explaining why such characters as Fiona (British actress Gemma Arterton) don't sound like they're from around here.

Fiona, Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and other female co-workers are all threatened by Jerry's Whiskers-encouraged homicidal tendencies. Like most slasher lampoons, The Voices tries to be as bloody and creepy as flicks that take psycho-killing more seriously. This is a major waste of time in a movie that's about a half-hour longer than its setup justifies.

That The Voices was made at Babelsberg Studio, just outside Berlin, is curious. Even curiouser is that it was directed by Marjane Satrapi, who's best-known for her graphic novel, Persepolis, and its film adaptation. Satrapi's fables juggle conflicting tones, as this movie attempts to do. But her previous work is rooted in family history and Iranian culture, which have nothing to do with a farce that includes not one but two ironic dance numbers set to the O'Jays' "Sing a Happy Song."

At its most adequate, The Voices plays like something John Waters might have dreamed up on a slow day. But it also suggests the films of stay-at-home Danish director Lars von Trier, whose critiques of American decadence are uncontaminated by his ever having visited the U.S.A.

If that makes The Voices sort of a low-rent, slasher-flick equivalent of Dogville, no wonder Mr. Whiskers is so peeved.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.