‘Breaking News in Yuba County’ movie review: tepid comedy wastes great cast

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Allison Janney plays a maltreated wife who sparks a series of incredible events in Breaking News in Yuba County, the kind of Elmore Leonard-style ensemble crime comedy that they just don’t make anymore. Going by this one, there may be a good reason for that.

In Breaking News in Yuba County, Janney is the woeful, forgotten Sue Buttons: she takes the abuse of irate callers at her help desk job, her co-workers have forgotten her birthday, and so has her cheatin’ no-good husband (Matthew Modine), who takes his mistress (Bridget Everett) to a seedy motel instead of taking his wife out to dinner.

But the story of a missing girl that’s getting all the attention on TV gives Sue inspiration to get more people on her side when real-life tragedy strikes in her own life. All she needs to do is invent a real tearjerker to play into the hearts of watchers nationwide, or at least in Yuba County.

Luckily for Sue, her sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) is a reporter for a local TV station who can get her some playtime. She even spins that into an interview with Gloria Michaels (Juliette Lewis), who previously covered the story of the missing girl.

Unluckily for Sue, her husband Karl was involved in some shady business, and when he goes “missing” some other characters come out of the woodwork. Those include a pair of lowlife criminals (Awkwafina and Clifton Collins Jr.) who had been laundering money through him, Karl’s brother Petey (Jimmi Simpson) and his wife (Samira Wiley), and Petey’s co-workers (Wanda Sykes and Ellen Barkin).

There’s also the frantic detective on the case (Regina Hall), who doubts every word of Sue’s story but gets no support from her partner or captain. Hall steals the show here, as the one character in the right; it’s her storyline, not Sue’s, that provides Breaking News in Yuba County with any narrative weight.

But with so many characters in the film’s primary cast, few get a chance to shine. Kunis, in particular, is wasted in a one-note role as Sue’s sister; the casting so odd (there’s a 24-year age difference between the actresses playing sisters) that the film spends multiple scenes describing how they are half-sisters, instead of giving them anything to do.

Sue, too, is largely forgotten during lengthy scenes of the underworld activity that she has unwittingly kicked off. Breaking News in Yuba County is presented as an airy, lightweight comedy, but by the end of the film most of the cast has been killed off, many in unexpectedly gruesome fashion.

Author Elmore Leonard made a career out of material like this, twisty tales of crime tinged with dark (and sometimes not-so-dark) comedy. That led to a few great big-screen adaptations in the 1990s: Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty, Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

Leonard’s style also spawned a lot of imitators, but the balancing act between real-life crime and offbeat comedy is a difficult one to maintain. These kinds of movies have been few and far between since their 1990s heyday, and Breaking News in Yuba County feels a couple decades out of date.

But it is low-key amusing and compulsively watchable. Amanda Idoko’s script throws twists at us at a fast enough pace that the film never becomes boring, and each of these actors brings a lot to the table, even if the film gives them little in return. Simpson, Collins, and Awkwafina are particularly fun to watch here.

Breaking News in Yuba County was directed by Tate Taylor, who previously made the Oscar-nominated but tone-deaf The Help, and more recently The Girl on the Train and last year’s Jessica Chastain assassin story Ava. Like his previous efforts, this one is slickly made but graceless and flat, and generally misses the mark.

Breaking News in Yuba County

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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