Breaking News in Yuba County | Review

by Andrew Parker

The multilayered dark comedy Breaking News in Yuba County is one of those films that’s nowhere near as good as it looks on paper. Packed to bursting with an all star cast of talented performers and an interesting main character to build a film around, Breaking News in Yuba County will leave viewers wondering where the whole thing went wrong. I’d be tempted to say that the latest film from director Tate Taylor (The Help, Ma, Ava) is cut from the same cloth that dozens of Tarantino and Coen Brothers knock-offs were in the late 90s, but that’s almost giving this too much credit. Breaking News in Yuba County isn’t particularly thrilling or intelligent enough to merit such a comparison, and the film isn’t funny or original enough to stand without it. This is an unnecessarily disappointing movie.

Allison Janney plays Sue Buttons, a Kentucky housewife, perfectionist, and customer service call centre employee who has been undervalued and unloved for far too long. Sue’s husband, Karl (Matthew Modine), a bank branch manager, ignores and cheats on her. Her local news reporter half-sister (Mila Kunis) only cares to call and make sure Karl is putting through her loan application. Everyone seems to have forgotten her birthday, and in a fit of rage, Sue trails Karl to a hotel where he’s meeting up with his mistress (Bridgett Everett). Sue’s sudden appearance gives Karl a heart attack, killing him on the spot. Instead of calling an ambulance, Sue buries Karl’s body and decides to get some much needed attention by reporting him missing. Sue becomes a media sensation – through lying and tying Karl’s “disappearance” to the case of a missing child that’s dominated the local news – but she doesn’t realize that her former husband was secretly acting as a money launderer for the pissed off daughter of a local crime boss (Keong Sim). 

The crime-lord-in-training (Awkwafina) and her henchman (Clifton Collins Jr.) need to find out where three million dollars of their money has disappeared to in Karl’s absence. They also have a bone to pick with the banker’s ex-con turned furniture outlet salesman brother, Petey (Jimmi Simpson). Petey thinks they’ve kidnapped Karl, so the crooks lie and try to extort a phoney $20,000 ransom out of the easily duped brother on the side. Petey, who has a pregnant wife (Samira Wiley), is forced back into a life of crime with some not-too-subtle goading from his boss (Wanda Sykes), a woman’s who’s unusually eager to engage in some criminal activity.

The far reaching problems with Breaking News in Yuba County first arise after a genuinely interesting introduction to Sue. The concept of an unloved, overworked, and frequently ignored person suddenly snapping and going off the deep end isn’t anything new, but in the opening moments of Breaking News in Yuba County, Janney breathes a lot of life into the material. Before Karl dies, Janney perfectly balances audience sympathies with the character’s mounting malevolence. Sue – who’s obsessed with self-help mantras and a Nancy Grace style newsmagazine host (Juliette Lewis) – knows what she wants out of life and is ready to seize it by any means necessary. But once Karl dies and Sue becomes increasingly unlikable (which would be fine in almost any movie other than this), Breaking News in Yuba County becomes so hopelessly overplotted that it ceases to be fun or interesting.

The script from Amanda Idoko is plot heavy in the extreme, and almost none of it is worth caring about since there are too many underdeveloped characters lost in the sauce. While the actors give performances that range from good to great across the board, it’s almost entirely up to them to keep the audience invested. It’s a hopeless task, and by about the halfway point, I just about gave up caring about anything that these hopelessly selfish people did or what would happen to them along the way. They’re not deep enough to be interesting, and no amount of convoluted plotting can cover that up. 

Similarly, and perhaps most damningly, there isn’t a genuine laugh to be found in Breaking News in Yuba County. There are a few smirks generated by the way these actors are delivering their lines, but nothing that comes out of their mouths – nor their situations – are funny. None of this is helped by Taylor’s astoundingly limp direction, replete with scenes so carelessly tossed off that it’s amazing one can’t hear the filmmaker sighing “well, that’s enough of that” at the end of every take. It’s almost as if the director simply thought the script and performances would do all of the talking.

Janney is a perfect choice to play a twisted sociopath, but Breaking News in Yuba County isn’t worth her efforts. Awkwafina shows flashes of joy in a chance to play against type, but she can’t elevate something so stuck in the basement. Sykes tries to inject some energy into her scenes by acting as wild and outlandish as possible, but it’s to no avail. Mostly everyone else in the supporting cast is completely wasted in stereotypical hick roles that are nothing more than broad stereotypes. The only person who genuinely shines – yet still doesn’t have anything really funny to do – is Regina Hall, who plays the closest thing to an audience surrogate here as the gruff detective who suspects Sue is full of shit. Too bad that character couldn’t have critiqued the whole film.

By the time bodies start piling up and each thread lumbers towards their ill chosen conclusions, Breaking News in Yuba County has already lost all the good will that its resoundingly overqualified cast has brought to it. It’s a mean film, but not in the way a dark comedy should be. It’s as awkward and unfunny as watching someone misuse sarcasm. There’s no wit or punchlines, and yet there’s no way to take any of this seriously. With the exception of Janney and Hall, every other actor is reduced to being a cog in a broken machine that just chews them up and spits them out. It’s a film devoid of fun, with nothing in its place to make one forget that their time is being wasted. It earns a dubious spot alongside Getting Away with Murder and Lucky Numbers as one of the most unsuccessful, star-driven dark comedies of all time.

Breaking News in Yuba County is available for digital purchase starting Friday, February 11, 2021. It will be available on VOD starting Tuesday, March 2, 2021, and on DVD and Blu-Ray Tuesday, March 23.

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