No one can accuse Tate Taylor of being the kind of director who’s confined to one genre or style. He’s tackled book adaptations with the Oscar-winning The Help (2011), biographical material with Get on Up (2014), suspense with The Girl on the Train (2016), straight-up horror with Ma (2019), and action drama with Ava (2020). Along the way he’s worked with some of the best actors of today, several more than once. This completely explains the stacked cast in his latest film, Breaking News in Yuba County, starring the likes of Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Samira Wiley, and Regina Hall. What it doesn’t explain is how disengaging the whole project is. Given what the script from first-time feature writer Amanda Idoko puts this cast through, one can only imagine just how much *fun* they are having being — to put it bluntly — absolute shits to one another. It’s just a shame that none of that translates to actual laughs.
It’s Sue Buttons’s (Janney) birthday and no one has remembered — not her husband Karl (Matthew Modine), her desperate-for-a-story reporter sister Nancy (Kunis), not her co-workers, no one. She can’t even get a modicum of respect from the clerk working the bakery counter at her local grocery to spell her name right on the birthday cake she’s ordered for herself. Despite providing herself with constant positive affirmations, nothing seems to be going her way. Things get worse when she stumbles onto her husband Karl cheating, only for him to die instantly. Seeing this as an opportunity, Sue hides the body and starts telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s missing. What seems like an instant way to achieve some form of positive attention turns messy as she unknowingly finds herself between the sordid individuals she didn’t know Karl was working with and a detective who smells something fishy (Hall).
The premise of Breaking News allows for the story to go a lot of places, but also very much limits it. It’s this strange narrative mathematical problem that starts wide, expansively so, and then grows narrower to a bland inevitability. For instance, Sue starting the film in an emotionally low point allows her to go on a journey of discovery, except rather than develop that aspect, Sue just kinda survives, high on her own bullshit. It’s not that audience have to like their protagonists — like, at all — but it would be helpful if we can identify some sort of growth as a person. Keep in mind that “growth” doesn’t mean to become morally stronger, it just means that they learn how to handle themselves which can translate to growing to be a better terrible person. Sue doesn’t get any of that. In fact, we don’t get enough from the bulk of the characters for them to have any kind of character arc at all. Bad guys are one-note, though Collins Jr. manages to exude some complexity from a mostly physical performance, while the “good guys” are just there. They do things and things happen, which causes other things to happen, so on and so forth, but, as mentioned, once the infinite possibilities shift into their chosen slots, the narrative shifts into something we’ve seen before. The cast is giving it there all, but, in the end, there’s not enough there for audiences to engage with.
To my great dismay, there are no bonus features included with the home release. Considering the talent in front of the camera, just getting a few outtakes or bloopers of the scene with Awkwafina’s Mina intimidating Sue or Sykes’s Rita talking trash to Jimmi Simpson’s Petey or Clifton Collins Jr.’s Ray doing, well, anything because Collins Jr. is amazing and his presence in films is an eternal delight. Between the low critical and audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (11%/52% at the time of this writing) and the dismal $80,261 worldwide box office take, there just may have been zero interest in investing anything more upon home release. The box office can be explained away by COVID-19 cutting into the theatrical revenue, but the film also hit VOD around the same time as the theatrical release, so it may just be about cutting losses, hoping it finds legs on home video, and moving on.
If you’re in the mood for a dark comedy with an amazing cast, you might be better served watching The Hunt (2020), Parasite (2019), or The Dead Don’t Die (2019). These films, even at their most oddball, each go a little nuts in their own unique way, offering a narrative that’s unpredictable at times to keep you on your toes and offers the cast material worth their efforts. There’s promise within Yuba County but it constantly feels squandered. Instead of being entertained, the audience strangely just feels bad for all involved. A misfire like this happens from time to time and can rarely be predicted. Always a shame when it happens.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital March 23rd, 2021.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.