Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) is having a very bad birthday. First, the cake that she bought for herself has her name spelt wrong. Then, she realizes that her husband Carl (Matthew Modine) and sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) both forgot her birthday. Next, she discovers that her coworkers also forgot her big day, and they dig the knife in deeper by elaborately celebrating the birthday of someone else in the office, which just so happens to be on the same day. To top it all off, she thinks that Carl is surprising her with flowers, only to find out that he’s having an affair. When Sue catches him in the act with his mistress (Bridget Everett), Carl promptly has a heart attack and dies.
This all happens within the first fifteen minutes of Breaking News in Yuba County, a dark comedy satire set in suburbia, taking cues from To Die For and the Coen brothers for this story of a white picket fence town where people’s darker sides hide just underneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed. For Sue, a constant pushover who has struggled her entire life to be able to speak her mind, this terrible birthday is her breaking point. She threatens the mistress, then buries her husband’s body, deciding to tell the police that he went missing so that she can become famous by going on television and pleading for people to help find him.
What Sue doesn’t know is that her husband and his brother Petey (Jimmi Simpson) were involved with some shady characters, so while Sue is going on Gloria Michaels’ (Juliette Lewis, with wardrobe that feels like a knowing homage to Nicole Kidman’s character in To Die For) show to cry about her “missing” husband, nefarious local criminals are conducting their own hunt to find Carl, and the $3 million that they had just given him to launder. Are you still keeping up?
Written and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Ma), this is a movie that tries to pack in so many characters and subplots that it becomes hard to follow exactly what’s going on, or what anyone’s motivations are. While Sue’s storyline is giving us a sharp satire on our fame obsessed culture, where everyone wants their 15 minutes in the spotlight no matter the cost, we’ve also got a side story with Petey teaming up with his boss (Wanda Sykes) to try and pay off Awkwafina and Clifton Collins Jr., criminals who are using the situation to try and make a profit of their own. At the same time, we’re also tasked with following Regina Hall’s character, the local detective who has been assigned to solve the missing person’s case.
It’s a calamity of a picture, and Taylor isn’t equipped to keep it all focused. Having broken out with the antiquated race relations drama The Help, Taylor is arguably the least distinctive filmmaker in the business, bouncing around from genre to genre without ever giving the audience an awareness of what his specific voice actually is. Taylor’s movies can at times give surface level thrills, but they always feel like imitations of something he had seen before, never possessing that intrinsic quality where we would know that we’re watching a “Tate Taylor movie”.
Breaking News in Yuba County benefits from an inordinately talented cast. In addition to the many amazing names already mentioned, you’ve also got Samira Wiley as Simpson’s wife, and Ellen Barkin in a thankless role as Sykes’ girlfriend. It’s astonishing that so many skilled actors signed up for a movie that most people will never hear of, but none of the cast feels like they’re phoning it in. Janney gives an impressive, totally committed performance, and it’s a delight to see her in a leading role, while Hall, Sykes, and Awkwafina all shine especially bright among the supporting ensemble.
The trouble is that there’s simply too much going on at all times. While the film is entertaining enough while watching it, that experience fades from your mind the moment the end credits begin and you discover that somehow Jake Gyllenhaal was one of the film’s producers. It’s a film that’s never able to carve out a personality or purpose of its own beyond making surface level observations that have been done better elsewhere. Taylor is living in the shadow of his influences here, which makes sense as he still can’t seem to figure out who he is as a filmmaker.
Breaking News in Yuba County is available purchase now on VOD and will be available to rent on March 2nd, 2021