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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Voices’

Ryan Reynolds does his best Norman Bates in a serial-killer satire posing as romantic-comedy fluff.

With:

Ryan Reynolds, Jacki Weaver, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Ella Smith, Paul Chahidi, Stanley Townsend, Adi Shankar, Sam Spruell, Valerie Koch, Gulliver McGrath, Paul Brightwell.

Cat goes, “Kill!” Dog goes, “Don’t!” But there’s one sound no one knows, and that’s the sound of laughter at Marjane Satrapi’s “The Voices.” An off-kilter black comedy about a seriously disturbed schizophrenic who speaks to his pets — and whose pets respond with unsolicited feedback about his new serial-killer hobby — this unnatural genre-bender serves as a bizarre vessel for the “Persepolis” co-director to expand her live-action chops. Never cute but occasionally clever, the result recalls a certain strain of fantasy-hued Sundance selections such as “Lars and the Real Girl” or “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” few of which go on to do more than specialty biz.

Picture “Psycho” as told from Norman Bates’ perspective, with his crazy world tidied to look the way he might experience it: What if Mother really did sit knitting in that basement rocker, or a brutal shower stabbing left no traces of blood? As the helmer hired to interpret TV procedural writer Michael R. Perry’s dark script, Satrapi faced the challenge of balancing a dreary Midwestern American setting with the way mentally unstable Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) experiences that world when he’s not taking his meds.

Satrapi must have had some strategy up her sleeve, although it’s hard to parse, seeing as how her very first location — Jerry’s workplace, Milton Fixture & Faucet — already looks unrealistically stylized. Jerry and the rest of his blue-collar factory mates wear fluorescent pink coveralls to a job that involves boxing and crating bathtubs. (While Satrapi deals in strong visuals, the costumes seem better suited to the musical numbers that come later, complete with floating Jesus and forklifts spinning in Busby Berkeley-style choreography.)

At first, Jerry seems like a swell if somewhat shy guy — a heckuva lot more normal than the intense woman who serves as his therapist (Jacki Weaver). Basically, he’s the sort that a nice girlfriend would surely fix, but instead, he lives at home with a downright evil feline named Mr. Whiskers and a doofy mastiff mix called Bosco. We hear the voices — a Scottish burr for the cat, countered by folksy, unconditional support from the dog — before realizing where they’re coming from, which is presumably the film’s way of easing us into Jerry’s inner world.

The speaking parts of both pets, as well as the sock puppet seen in confusing childhood flashbacks and the roadkill deer who inspires Jerry’s first act of onscreen violence, are all performed by Reynolds, who either has an extremely limited arsenal of voices (unlikely, considering his leading roles in both “Turbo” and “The Croods” last year) or has the bad luck of being directed by a non-native speaker. Why does Mr. Whiskers have a bad Scottish accent? One may as well ask why the faucet-factory uniforms are bright pink, or why someone would feel compelled to tell such an unpleasant story in the first place.

Granted, on paper, “The Voices” sounds downright charming, with its talking animals and over-art-directed interpretation of small-town America, re-created halfway across the world on German soundstages. And who wouldn’t root for a boyish-faced Reynolds as a lonely bachelor looking for love? You might feel otherwise once Jerry starts murdering his prospects and stuffing their heads in his refrigerator, however.

As played by Gemma Arterton, Fiona, the sexy English gal who works in accounting, is a wee bit out of his league. Her down-to-earth co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) seems more Jerry’s speed, and if all else fails, there’s always overeager, overweight Alison (Ella Smith) from the next cubicle over — at least, that’s the most stereotypical succession of interest if finding a soulmate were really the film’s object. But rather than rooting for him to get closer to a good match, we find ourselves backpedaling in revulsion. There’s not a sane person on earth who wants to see Lisa decapitated, or watch Jerry dividing Fiona’s remains between neatly sealed Tupperware containers, for that matter.

In tapping Satrapi to interpret this project, the producers have done about as well as one could expect with such material. Still, a bit more consistency in style would have gone a long way: The pic’s tone is all over the place, from the bright red razor slash that underscores its opening titles to the “Amelie”-esque flights of fancy along the way (lensed a bit too darkly by French horror helmer Maxime Alexandre, and augmented by CG butterflies and other surreal touches). Even the music, which pits ironically selected oldies against a misleading score from “Persepolis” composer Olivier Bernet, doesn’t quite fit either the movie “The Voices” is pretending to be or the nastier one lurking beneath.

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Sundance Film Review: 'The Voices'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 19, 2014. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production:

A 1984 Private Defense Contractors presentation of a Mandalay Vision, Studio Babelsberg, Vertigo Entertainment production. (International sales: Panorama Media, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Matthew Rhodes, Adi Shankar, Roy Lee, Spencer Silna. Executive producers, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Elika Portnoy, Charlie Woebcken, Cathy Schulman, Adam Stone, John Powers Middleton, Douglas Saylor Jr. Co-producers, Marco Mehlitz, Thomas Nickel, Alex Foster.

Crew:

Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Screenplay, Michael R. Perry. Camera (color, widescreen), Maxime Alexandre; editor, Stephane Roche; music, Olivier Bernet; production designer, Udo Kramer; art director, Stefan Hauck; set decorator, Karin Betzler; costume designer, Bettina Helmi; sound, Martin Muller; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Christian Conrad; re-recording mixer, Lars Ginzel; special effects supervisor, Uli Nefzer; visual effects supervisors, Antoine Marbach, Damien Stumpf, Manfred Buttner; visual effete, Atelier VFX; assistant director, Scott Kirby; second unit director, Stephane Roche; casting, Mary Verniue, Venus Kanani.

With:

Ryan Reynolds, Jacki Weaver, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Ella Smith, Paul Chahidi, Stanley Townsend, Adi Shankar, Sam Spruell, Valerie Koch, Gulliver McGrath, Paul Brightwell.

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