In Breaking News in Yuba County, even Allison Janney isn’t funny

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Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) is a low-key, downtrodden woman, the sort of person who buys her own birthday cake and pays for it even when the name on it is spelt wrong.

The sort of person whose husband, sister and colleagues all forget her birthday, and who, however many affirmations she does – “My story is important, I am important”, she repeats with wretched optimism – just can’t get people to pay attention to her.

Until the day, that is, her financially and sexually nefarious husband Karl (Matthew Modine) drops dead and Sue does something that causes the local media – and the local mob – to sit up and finally pay attention.

You can see exactly what Breaking News in Yuba County is going for – the kind of quirky small-town characters and spiralling comic crime caper that was perfected in Fargo (1996).

This is the type of film where every character has his or her eccentricity writ large: half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) is the local news reporter ravenous for success, Mina (Awkwafina) is the local incompetent criminal, Detective Harris (Regina Hall) is the cynical cop with the straggliest mullet since The Lost Boys.

Allison Janney and Mila Kunis in Breaking News In Yuba County (Photo: Anna Kooris)

But amid all this promise of unpredictable farce, Yuba County is disappointingly pedestrian. Neither Amanda Idoko’s script nor Tate Taylor’s (The Help) direction has the sophistication to pull off the delicate balance of outlandish physical comedy, unexpected (and yet here, expected) violence and stirring emotion that this film needs.

Janney goes too loud, where pulling back might have been funnier (at her husband’s death, for example), and though there is the occasional moment of quiet intimacy, notably a scene between the two sisters, it is barely given any room to breathe.

The result is something that strives so hard for comedy that it constantly undermines its own sense of consequence. Nothing here truly matters, it seems, and so, why should we care?

On Sky Cinema and NOW from 16 October


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