The creators of The Voices, a sad comedy about a man and his talking cat, are aware that star Ryan Reynolds is an unusual leading man. At a glance, he looks as everyday normal as a sweatshirt. But zoom in and he’s much more complex: His button eyes are dark with yearning, his thin-lipped smile too nervous; even his pinup muscles — the result of an industry trying to turn him into something they know how to market — wear him, instead of the other way around. He’s Anthony Perkins with a personal trainer, and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), the director of Voices, has cast him perfectly in the most complex role of his career.
Reynolds plays Jerry Hickfang, a small-town sweetheart who’s quivering with the need for friends. Along with his crush, snotty sexpot Fiona (Gemma Arterton), he works in a candy-colored bathtub factory where the black smokestacks huff beautiful poison. When he sprinkles styrofoam into a crate, he beams like Jack Frost inventing snow. The film’s look is so cloying that pizza has heart-shaped pepperoni. Satrapi seems to have lost her senses — only Wes Anderson can pull off oppressive splendor.
No one in this world, save for mousy accountant Lisa (Anna Kendrick), likes Jerry at all, even though the audience likes him tremendously. At home, even his orange cat, Mr. Whiskers, accuses him of being a loser (doing so in a cruel Scottish brogue). His dog Bosco howls in defense, and we’re about one biscuit away from dismissing The Voices as a gimmicky Sundance comedy (it premiered there last year) with a likable lead.
Turns out we’ve walked into Satrapi’s trap. Jerry is everything he appears to be: yearning, insecure, kind. He’s also a schizophrenic serial killer–to-be. And when his court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) convinces Jerry to go back on his meds, Satrapi reveals she’s been screwing with us the whole time: She’s stuck the camera inside his head. Jerry gobbles a pill, takes a nap — and, as he shakes himself awake, we see his life as it really is: grotesque. The light dims to dishwater-gray; his tidy stacks of Tupperware crumble; his only companions, his pets, turn away from him in silence.
Mr. Whiskers is correct to warn him, “Take those drugs, and you will enter a bleak and lonely world, Jerry.” Of course Jerry would rather stay crazy. Who wouldn’t? Fantasyland allows him to dream that he can get the girl, be the hero — all those Hollywood hopes audiences crave every time they buy a ticket. Jerry wants what everyone wants. Like it or not, The Voices aligns us with a murderer. Satrapi has stripped us of that safety blanket that separates normal from nuts. Tsk-tsking at the news, we tend to assure ourselves that criminals are absolute monsters, as though well-meaning folks never do a bad, bad thing. Yet nice people hurt others every day, even as they pat themselves on the back. There’s a little Jerry in everyone.
The Voices is a perfect film that’s hard to watch. Jerry will kill, and he’ll kill characters we like. He thinks it’s by accident. Forced into his eyes, it’s hard to tell. At its Sundance premiere, dozens of people walked out at each death. Through their eyes, they fled thinking that the clash of tones was too jarring — they wanted less cartoon in their carnage, or vice versa. But they really left because Satrapi had done her job too well. The deaths hurt on both ends of the knife, from the victims staring up at Jerry in confused, blubbering fear to Jerry stabbing them in the chest, pleading, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Screenwriter Michael R. Perry gives Jerry a traumatic backstory, which is agonizing but unnecessary. Explaining why he’s nuts doubles our sympathy for him, but fuzzes The Voices‘ broader point. Besides, Reynolds gives the part plenty of feeling. He walks and talks like a nervous boy on the balls of his feet, and when he gazes at Fiona, whom Arterton plays like a ripe fruit one day from going rancid, his longing spills into every corner of the screen. Reynolds could make us forgive anything, even the way that Jerry’s Fiona fixation makes him obliviously cruel towards Kendrick’s Lisa, a young divorcée, when she’s the only human who sees him the way he sees himself: as a nice guy who’s trying his best.
Like Channing Tatum, Reynolds has evolved from a generic bro to a genius who’s learned to use his normalcy as a weapon. Audiences of all colors and genders have been trained to identify with white leading men as The Everyman, even if blessed with the size of Schwarzenegger, the beauty of Pitt, the intensity of Bale, or the charisma of Clooney. By contrast, Reynolds and Tatum are so mall-rat ordinary they seem to apologize for intruding on the screen. Compared to Schwarzenegger, identifying with them is a snap. As conduits, they’re not just white — they’re practically clear, allowing us to imagine ourselves in their place.
Alas, the setup leaves Satrapi no way to end the film. She’s made us care for both Jerry and his casualties (who, thanks to his brain chemistry, continue to keep him company even as corpses). Can we allow his crimes to go unpunished? As the police net closes around him, the script slides into conformity, except that a normal film wouldn’t have a cat and dog arguing about Jerry’s best options like a flea-ridden devil and angel. Perhaps, muses The Voices, for this lonely man-child, the worst punishment of all isn’t even the cops — it’s if his doting mutt can no longer assure him he’s “a good boy.”
Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Written by Michael R. Perry. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jacki Weaver, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Ella Smith, and Paul Chahidi.