Breaking News in Yuba County movie review: Alison Janney’s black comedy soft-pedals satire with slapstick
Were Breaking News in Yuba County a series instead of a movie, perhaps we would have come to sympathise with Sue Buttons over time just like we did with Fargo's Peggy Blumquist.
It is hard to keep track of the number of pale imitations Coen brothers' movies have spawned in recent years. Indeed, even the most eager imitations don't always make for quality products. For every Blow the Man Down, there is a Breaking News in Yuba County. Tate Taylor follows up his off-brand Nikita knock-off, Ava, with an off-brand Fargo knock-off. The Coens' icy brew of crime noir becomes a little too warm and flat to wash down easily in Breaking News in Yuba County. This, despite Taylor assembling a stellar ensemble led by the always-delightful Alison Janney. Her Sue Buttons is as painfully ignorant as Jean Lundegaard in Fargo, and as committed to self-actualising as Peggy Blumquist in the TV adaptation. Her path to self-actualisation similarly veers off course. An unnecessary cover-up sets in motion a caper involving hapless fools with an untapped capacity for crime, forces of unstoppable evil on their trail, and a female cop who serves as the moral compass.
Sue Buttons is as milquetoast as white suburban wives come. At home, her husband Karl (Matthew Modine) not only neglects her but, unbeknownst to her, is having an affair. At work, customers swear at her, and colleagues don't even hear her when she joins their lunchtime conversations. She's going through life in an upbeat customer service voice, trying hard to maintain an everything-will-be-okay demeanour. Taylor gives us a hard sell on just how invisible, inaudible and inessential Sue feels. He opens on her birthday, where she is standing in line at the supermarket to buy her own cake. She is repeating affirmations to herself that she's "important, confident and strong." It's not easy when the baker has misspelt her name as "Suc" on her cake, and refuses to change it. It's especially hard when everyone — from her colleagues to her half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) to her own husband — has forgotten her birthday. When she shows up at her husband's workplace to remind him, the day only gets worse. She follows him driving to a sleazy motel, and the moment she walks in on him in the act with his mistress Leah (Bridget Everett), his heart gives out in a double whammy of shock and excitement.
Instead of calling 911, Sue convinces Leah to vamoose, buries the body, and tells the world he's been kidnapped. With half-sis Nancy always looking for the next big scoop to become the next big thing in local TV news, Sue finds a suitable ally to give her the one thing she most desires: visibility. But when her story doesn't gain the visibility she desires, she ties her husband's disappearance to the story of a missing young girl dominating the broadcast airwaves. This attracts the attention of A-list anchors like Gloria Michaels (Juliette Lewis), who finally gives Sue the chance to hog the limelight. Sue could have been an ideal spokeswoman for a culture where people don't care about the what and why they want to be a celebrity, as long as they're celebrities. Her story could have been an example of how news of tragedies turns into a griefsploitation circus, where private agony becomes public interest. Unfortunately, this is a satire out of sync with its targets.
Sue is out of sync with reality. She has been for a long while. She doesn't know Karl was laundering money for the local crime boss Mr Kim (Keong Sim), and when she buried him, she also buried a bag full of his cash along with it. Out to recover the money are Mr Kim's daughter Mina (Awkwafina) and her hitman cohort Ray (Clifton Collins Jr), who dupe Karl's reformed ex-con brother Petey (Jimmi Simpson) into thinking they're holding him for ransom. So, Petey and his wannabe-criminal furniture-store boss Rita (Wanda Sykes) pull off a jewellery heist to raise the ransom money in an odd-couple subplot. Sykes brings some character to what is an ensemble improv sprawling to feature length. Trying to solve the whole thing is the relentless Detective Cam Harris (Regina Hall), who seems to be the only one who can see through Sue's escalating fabrications.
Amanda Idoko's screenplay had made the 2017 Black List of best unproduced scripts, and it feels like a first draft dusted off from the bottom drawer. Because the missteps don't just arise from Taylor's execution, but are ingrained in Idoko's story. Aiming to serve a satire of American fixation on celebrity, it misses its target by some distance as it gratingly seesaws between Fargoisms and farce. The farcical interludes don't just blunt the potential for a more cutting satire, they distract the movie from exploring how deep the pathology of celebrity goes.
Another defining pathology of the characters in Breaking News in Yuba County is perhaps best summed up by the Bertrand Russell quote that opens a Season 4 episode of Fargo: “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.” You also hear a version of it from Peggy at the end of Season 2, where she insists she was a victim long before her hit-and-run set all the mayhem in motion. She makes a case for women like her and Sue, calling attention to a deep-seated domestic malaise. "It’s a lie, okay? That you can have it all. Be a wife and a mother, but also this self-made career woman, like there’s 37 hours in the day. And then when you can’t, they say it's you, you're faulty, like you're inferior somehow," says Peggy.
Were Breaking News in Yuba County a series instead of a movie, perhaps we would have come to sympathise with Sue over time just like we did with Peggy. Even if the condensed mish-mash renders Sue near unlikeable, Janney tries her best to help us understand the catalysts for Sue's dysfunctional behaviour, and why her story matters. Only, it's a story ill-suited to its 96-minute runtime. Maybe with tighter episodic plotting, sharper dialogue, blacker comedy and a more sustained tension, it could have been a season of Fargo. Instead, what you're left with is the kind of algorithmic casualty that belongs on Netflix.
Breaking News in Yuba County releases in Indian cinemas on 19 February.
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