Review: Breaking News in Yuma County is a disappointing dark crime comedy

Breaking News in Yuma County (MA15+, 96 minutes)

2 stars

Sometimes a movie really comes alive with an audience. I remember seeing 9 to 5 in the cinema and thinking it was hilarious as I laughed along with the audience. Watching it again when I was alone it seemed a bit flat, and not just because I knew what to expect.

Allison Janney, centre, in Breaking News in Yuma County. Picture: Roadshow

Allison Janney, centre, in Breaking News in Yuma County. Picture: Roadshow

When I watched Breaking News in Yuma County at Dendy, there was only one other person in the cinema. I don't know if an appreciative audience would have markedly enhanced my enjoyment of this uneven black crime comedy, but it certainly wouldn't have hurt.

Sue Buttons (Alison Janney) is one of life's losers, virtually ignored in her California community. She's constantly listening to and repeating affirmations but they don't seem to have much effect. None of her family members or call centre work colleagues remembers her birthday - she buys herself a cake and even then, there's a problem.

Adding insult to injury, or maybe that should be vice versa, her banker husband Karl (Matthew Modine) is cheating on her.

When she discovers him in flagrante delicto in a motel room with Leah (Bridget Everett), he dies of a heart attack. Sue shoos Leah away and while sitting and thinking of what to do she sees talk show host Gloria Michaels (Juliette Lewis) on TV vowing to help the parents of a missing child.

Sue buries her husband and the bag he had with him and goes to the police to report him missing. She's interrupted and overlooked - her luck is still bad - and decides to contact Emma Rose instead. Could national attention and sympathy for her missing hubby be just what she needs to cure what ails her?

Naturally, things don't go according to plan. One big problem is that in Karl's bag was a huge wad of cash he was supposed to launder for crime boss Mr Kim (Keong Sim). Kim, of course, wants his money and sends Mina (Awkwafina) and Ray (Clifton Collins Jr) to retrieve it.

There are many other characters including suspicious Detective Harris (Regina Hall), Sue's half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis), an ambitious local reporter who wants the missing-person story for herself, and Karl's ex-con brother Petey (Jimmi Simpson), who's trying to go straight.

This is one of those movies where it's hard to pin down exactly what went wrong. The cast lineup is impressive, the basic story is promising, and there are enough good moments to make me think about what might have been. The film is reminiscent of a Coen brothers crime film like Fargo with bits of Quentin Tarantino but not as good as the best of either. It holds the attention but it doesn't really engage or impress.

Director Tate Taylor's heavyhanded style is one of the problems: the performances are often overblown and there's not a lot of subtlety or nuance or atmosphere, the film playing a bit like a brash sitcom. Some of the occasional moments of violence are graphic but in a way that seems discordant rather than fitting.

Taylor - an actor as well as a director - has a varied filmography. His earlier films The Help and The Girl on the Train - both based on books - were both better than this one, even if neither was a classic.

Although Amanda Idoko's original screenplay (her first for a feature film) is carefully structured, it feels like there are too many characters to keep track of and they feel like pawns being moved on a board with no real inner life, despite the actors' efforts.

There's certainly a lot of diversity in the casting but that doesn't mean much if they aren't given high quality material.

This is a passable diversion, at best.

This story Heavyhandedness is the real crime first appeared on The Canberra Times.