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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.
FEATURING: Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Kim Delaney
PLOT: After losing her boyfriend and her job, young adult Olive takes a vacation by herself at an airbnb rental in the country; unfortunately, her landlord is a millennial-hating boomer with murder on his mind.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A horror-comedy that’s allegedly a satire of generational conflict, Tone-Deaf is neither scary nor funny—and although it does get a little weird, it doesn’t get weird enough to overcome its other handicaps.
COMMENTS: For the record (and I don’t consider this a spoiler) the title refers to protagonist Olive’s literal tone-deafness, the source of a running joke about how she’s a terrible piano player. Since her parents and friends all tell her she’s a whiz on the ivories, she never figures out that she can’t play, despite the fact that her renditions sound only slightly better than a drunk cat crawling across the keyboard.
See the satire? Or is it too subtle?
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that, as opposed to deep-seated prejudices about race and sex, the present (and perennial) generational conflict is relatively genial and jokey: “you kids get off my lawn!,” “in my day we walked to school uphill—both ways.”1 Although there was a brief “participation trophy” furor a few years back, in general, the ribbings oldsters give youngsters, and vice-versa, aren’t taken too seriously by either side. After all, the Boomers were the “Me Generation” that the “Greatest Generation” accused of being soft; for them to turn around and make the same claims about millennials is an absurd (if inevitable) example of history repeating itself. The Boomer-millennial clash just isn’t that serious or rancorous, so satirizing it isn’t bold or dangerous; in fact, it seems like a deflection to avoid addressing the real destructive partisan divide in today’s America. And, in the end, Tone-Deaf‘s screenplay refuses to firmly commit to either side, making us wonder what the point of the entire exercise was.
That lack of focus wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the jokes were funny. I think I chuckled once, during an unexpected deadpan cultural appropriation joke. But for the most part you see the jabs coming; they’re all telegraphed, far too obvious to catch you off guard. Heck, Harvey even breaks the fourth wall to rant about kids today, so you couldn’t accuse the script of trusting the audience to be smart enough to get the point. And yet, Tone-Deaf isn’t a complete misfire. Although the high concept misses the mark, there’s enough going on that the movie becomes watchable. Since a feature length film has a lot of time to fill between the time Olive checks in and Harvey tries to forcibly check her out, the script has to find something else for the slasher and victim to do while waiting for the final showdown. That means some unexpected plot turns, including a Tinder date in a cowboy bar and a car wash that sells drugs. Demented killer Robert Patrick’s performance can be fun, in a crusty old fart swinging a tire iron kind of way. The best parts of the film are the left-fieldian touches. Harvey has a series of psycho-sexual nightmares featuring art-installation models in blue latex body paint that are funnier parodies than anything else in the script. And a cameo by —looking a bit like the Amazing Criswell lit by a multicolored strobe light during an acid trip—is a highlight (the man’s a real pro). These bits suggest a better, wilder B-movie hiding somewhere inside this misfire.
The filmmakers had to know from the outset that reviewers were going to dub this a “Tone-Deaf satire.” (It’s probably a good thing they didn’t name it Ham-Fist, although that title would have lent itself to even more accurate critical quips).
Richard Bates, Jr. made a minor splash in the indie horror world with his 2012 debut, Excision, but has since failed to follow up on that success. Tone-Deaf won’t revive his fading reputation, but there are enough shiny baubles buried under the dross to make us not want to give up on him just yet.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Tone-Deaf’ is devilishly hilarious for the first two acts, diving into murky psychological waters to trigger some spooky and surreal stuff for genre fans, but also retaining a defined sense of humor, with amusing amplification of common generational issues, having a good time poking a stick at people of all ages.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)