When Sundance 2014 wrapped, most of the buzz surrounded two films that eventually found themselves in the Best Picture category for next week’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. They were not the only films to break out; one of the others that managed to cultivate quite a bit of excitement was the first English language film from Iranian director Marjane Satrapi, whose Persepolis thrust the spotlight upon her back in 2007. The movie in question is the dark comedy The Voices starring Ryan Reynolds, and after a year traveling the festival circuit, it has reached theaters and video on demand thanks to distribution from Lions Gate Entertainment.
Reynolds is Jerry, a likeable guy living in an apartment above a bowling alley and working in the warehouse of a local office complex. He’s popular among the ladies in the accounting department, and has his eye on one particular woman, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), though her coworker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) seems like she might be a little more interested. However, Jerry is not all he appears to be; his therapist (Jackie Weaver) hints at a darkness lurking within him, a darkness that seems to have an outlet in his dog, Bosco, and his cat, Mr. Whiskers, who talk to him while he’s home alone (both animals are also voiced by Reynolds). The extent to Jerry’s mania becomes clear relatively quickly, and the film takes on a decidedly morbid bent as it builds to its conclusion.
The premise is an enticing one, recasting the classic angel and devil on the shoulder motif with his dopey, good-natured dog and evil, sadistic cat, and Reynolds has the comedic chops to make the concept work without seeming too on the nose in its execution. Working off a script from predominantly television writer Michael R. Perry, Satrapi approaches the material with a decidedly Burton-esque bent, unafraid to shy away from the more grisly aspects of Jerry’s life and presenting them as matter-of-fact in his exceedingly twisted world. It is a colorful one as well, attempting to create a dichotomy between the vibrancy of the world as Jerry sees it versus the world as it really is.
What is unfortunate, though, is that the film tends to feel like one of Tim Burton’s more recent films than his more classic work. What holds back The Voices is simple enough: it is not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The biggest issue is the writing and performance of the cat; it is designed to be a surly scot with a psychotic streak, and it certainly hits those beats, but does so in a way that is clearly designed to be funny without ever actually eliciting even a chuckle. The dog fares a little better, but the lack of humor remains endemic throughout the film. As a result, the first fifteen minutes of the film are rather disastrous; The Voices is not a film that makes a strong first impression. Things do get better for the most part during the film’s second act, wherein Satrapi does quite a few interesting things with Jerry’s mental illness, and Reynolds plays his role decently enough. Yet Ryan Reynolds has always been a case of wasted potential; his charm and aw-shucks attitude has always been a better fit for supporting roles more than leads.
As the story twists further and further away from its wholesome surface, it rarely manages to lurch beyond second gear. Love interests Kendrick and Arterton acclimate themselves well to the world, but they too are eventually subsumed into Jerry’s character, barely measuring interest in the grand scheme of things. That is the clearest way to understand the failures of The Voices. It is a comedy that is not funny starring an actor who cannot succeed in making his character interesting. Satrapi tries, injecting some style and verve into the proceedings, but it is not enough to overcome the film’s core problems. With some touch-ups from a well-established dark comedy writer and perhaps a different choice of lead, The Voices could have found a way to be something special. Instead, it just lies across the screen inert.