Dark comedy is a tricky beast to wrangle, especially when you want to inject drama into it too. The problems that arise are tonal ones that are difficult to avoid. In the case of Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices, they are handled reasonably well because of an incredible performance by Ryan Reynolds. The charismatic actor shows joy, regret, compassion, confusion, and hate to take the film from an interesting premise to a well-realized tale. All while still keeping itself anchored in a surreal, dark tone.
As a factory worker in Milton, Jerry (Reynolds) has always had a difficult time maintaining social relationships and feeling like a part of the community. The person he sees most often outside of work is his shrink, Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), who is helping him cope with his mother’s death and the voices inside of his head. Those voices manifest themselves as his dog, Bosco, and his cat, Mr. Whiskers, who act as the angel and devil on his shoulders, respectively. They are also voiced by Ryan Reynolds, which is kind of amazing when you hear them.
The pets are an interesting element incorporated into the film because they actually take on traits that one might associate directly with that type of animal. For instance, Bosco is extremely loyal to Jerry, but at the same time, he rarely has the gall to say anything that would upset his owner. The only disagreements he has is with his natural enemy, Mr. Whiskers, a cat that walks all over Jerry and provokes him in ways that only a sinister feline could do. Mr. Whiskers preys on Jerry’s weaknesses, is demanding, and also manages to say nice things to Jerry every once in a while if it means good things for him in the long run.
They come into play more when Jerry becomes infatuated with the attractive, British lady working upstairs, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), who he tries to kindle a relationship with. There’s a moment early in the film when Jerry believes he is stood up by Fiona but then encounters her caught in the rain at night. He offers her a ride in which he starts having hallucinations similar to ones that his mother had before she died. This entire scene goes from awkward and uncomfortable, to light-hearted, then to dark and uncomfortable, and then to just plain dark. However, typically a scene like this would play out with dark motivations behind the driver’s character and malicious intent to kill the passenger, especially one that he believes has stood him up. The Voices does not work that way, and that is why it is extremely refreshing. Jerry takes Fiona’s explanation for not being at the restaurant they agreed to meet at, at face value. He then falls in love with her again. This makes Jerry’s character infallibly more dynamic and interesting because you can tell from that immediate change of heart and naivety that there is a lot of emotional turmoil deep down inside of him.
I don’t really want to spoil a lot of the film, but Mr. Whiskers plays a pivotal part in the way the story unfolds, which once again hearkens back to the notion that a cat dominates its owner.The film becomes a lot more dark with only hints of that comedy which is a lot more front-loaded by Satrapi. There are still brief moments of humor sprinkled throughout, but they dig deeper into the character of Jerry as he unfolds from a series of unfortunate events. It takes restraint to not switch tones back to how they were, yet still maintain a balance of the two tones throughout.
What really shines in The Voices though is its cast. Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton are fine, as they show various levels of excitement and fear. Kendrick gets a little more time to get down-to-earth, and it is appreciated. Jacki Weaver is also extremely good, and her character finds ways to make Jerry’s situation seem more relatable than it initially seems. The real star is Reynolds though, who as mentioned before, serves an anchor to a film that could easily have spiraled out of control. His range as an actor (and voice actor) is taken to new levels that I don’t think I’ve ever seen from the guy who always plays the heartthrob. He is perfectly cast in the film and manages to inhabit the role with an astonishing amount of ease.
The film does have issues in pacing though. that holds it back from having the same impact it could have had as a tighter package. Some of the ways plot points are introduced are kind of weird and stilted, such as the fact that characters apparently only coincidentally discovered Jerry’s past because someone (they don’t say who) looked up newspapers from a long time ago and came across his name. Coincidence works into The Voices on occasion, and one of the bonding moments which happens between Anna Kendrick’s character and Reynolds’s feels slightly forced in its setting and intentions.
But beyond minor gripes, The Voices is really good and shows a clash of self-identity that feels heartfelt and earnest in its exploration. It also serves as a way to demonstrate that Reynolds is more than just a pretty face who takes terrible roles. The “Reynaissance” (I apologize) may be looming if he continues to take roles with this kind of depth or variety.