Neglected banker’s wife Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) finds all the attention she’s been missing from her marriage in the glow of the local media in “Breaking News in Yuba County.” A surprisingly violent small-town satire from director Tate Taylor that feels every bit as much a period piece as his 2011 hit “The Help,” despite taking place in the present day, “Breaking News” suggests a cross between such dark comedies as “To Die For” and “Fargo,” minus those films’ pitch-perfect balance between eccentricity and outrageousness. Here, Taylor wrings laughs from weird wigs and even wonkier carnage, rather than trusting his promising (if outdated) premise.
It’s Sue’s birthday, and nobody seems to care. Not her self-interested half-sister (Mila Kunis); not her suicide-hotline co-workers, who add insult to injury by celebrating a colleague’s birthday instead; and most hurtfully, not her husband, Karl (Matthew Modine), who buys a bouquet of flowers … for his mistress. Sue follows Karl to a sleazy motel, and the schmuck has a heart attack the minute she finds him in flagrante delicto (with comedian Bridget Everett), leaving behind a bag full of cash.
Sadly, Sue’s too bothered by what’s happened to realize she’s in possession of a million plus, so she buries the body and the loot beneath a nearby swing set, calmly cancels her dinner reservations and rehearses her story. The next day, she shows up at the police station and tries to report her husband missing, but Detective Cam Harris (Regina Hall) has other distractions and suggests the distressed widow wait it out.
Why Sue thinks it’s a good idea to cover up her husband’s death is never made clear, although it’s certainly expedient to the plot, which cynically imagines her becoming an overnight celebrity by granting interviews about Karl’s disappearance. That might’ve been true back in the ’90s, but these days, it would probably take her making a (false) claim to murdering her husband for the media to propel someone like Sue Buttons to household-name status.
Such gaping logic flaws aside, Amanda Idoko’s screenplay does a fairly steady job of surprising, creating more than a dozen memorable characters, whom Taylor has cast with a terrific variety of comedic talents — from lesbian furniture dealers (Wanda Sykes and Ellen Barkin) to a pair of particularly inept hit people (Awkwafina and Clifton Collins Jr.). A few years back, “Breaking News” landed on The Black List (the industry insiders’ roundup of their favorite unproduced scripts), and Black List organizer Franklin Leonard picked this project as a first feature to produce himself.
But like all scripts, something changed en route to the screen — certain characters tweaked, various details rethought — and the result is rather more uneven than such a sprawling group effort requires. While Sue is pursuing coverage from glamorous local TV personality Gloria Michaels (Juliette Lewis), Awkwafina’s and Collins’ characters, Mina and Ray, orchestrate an ill-conceived ransom plan involving Karl’s ex-con brother Petey (Jimmi Simpson). Seems the duo saw an opportunity to earn an easy $20,000 by claiming to have kidnapped the missing Karl, and now Petey — backed by his eager-to-bend-the-law boss Rita (Sykes) — organizes a jewelry heist to raise the money.
Essentially, unlike most mysteries, where the suspects try to hide their crimes, everyone here is flamboyantly drawing attention to themselves at all times, while news outlets give the case unprecedented attention. Cam (rightly) suspects that Sue’s story doesn’t hold water, but her investigation inexplicably overlooks Mina and Ray’s increasingly murderous involvement as the bodies start to pile up — and even these characters are sidelined before they ever come in contact with law enforcement.
One can feel Idoko’s influences. In “Fargo,” a desperate man has his wife kidnapped in order to collect the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. In “To Die For,” an ambitious small-town weather girl tricks a trio of teens into murdering her husband. DNA from both those films finds its way into “Breaking News,” which somehow misses the grounding quality that keeps such Jerry Springer-worthy honeymoon-enders from feeling so pathetically plausible. (Remember the “this is a true story” misdirect the Coens used to destabilize audiences? No one would believe that about “Breaking News.”)
The fact we know what happened to Karl from the beginning shifts this from being a quirky puzzle to full-blown farce — albeit one punctuated with a series of brutal murders: bullet to the head, hatchet to the heart, drill press to what remains of good taste. Despite such grisly death scenes, the film feels nowhere near as ruthless as “Ruthless People” (to name another bad-marriage caper). It’s a shame so few of the impacted parties make it to the end, adding little to the statement Idoko wants to make about Sue’s obsession with being on TV. (Television sets get it just as bad as the people, although it’s not clear whether their destruction is part of the movie’s glib anti-fame-seeking moral.)
Even blessed with such an ensemble, Taylor has a tough time figuring out and maintaining the tone, leaning on an intrusively zany score from Jeff Beal for cues. Sykes and Awkwafina are fun, but Janney is by far the movie’s best asset, powering past the inconsistencies of her character to reveal what makes Sue Buttons tick: Here’s a woman who’s gone her entire life without being seen, and who finds a silver lining in what ought to be the worst day of her life. Instead of losing her cool, she fixates on the lure of all those TV interviews — and suddenly, the people who ignored her before are dropping by to express their concern. In Janney’s hands, we feel for this woman, even if, truth be told, no TV station would carry the story.