'Breaking News in Yuba County' Review: Allison Janney shines in an otherwise half-baked dark satire about the unquenchable American desire for fame

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Time and again we have seen in American films how far people are willing to go to become famous. And the quicker they can achieve the fame the better it is for them. For, patience is certainly not one of their virtues. Perhaps, the best example of this is Martin Scorsese's 1982 film “The King of Comedy”. In the film we come across an aspiring stand-up comedian named Rupert Pupkin (essayed by none other than the two-time Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro) who goes to the extent of kidnapping a famous stand-up comedian for a chance at fame. Pupkin gets a six-year prison sentence for it but is out on parole after just two years. As soon as he is out, he gets bombarded with several attractive offers including comedy tours and a film adaptation of his memoirs, written by him during his time in the jail. 

Fast forward to 2021 and we come across Tate Taylor's “Breaking News in Yuba County” that tells the story of an under-appreciated suburban wife named Sue Buttons (essayed by Allison Janney) who uses her husband's apparent disappearance to become famous. On the day of her marriage anniversary, she catches her banker husband with another woman. Caught cheating on her, he gets a massive heart attack and dies on the spot. Pouncing on the opportunity, Sue secretly buries his body and goes to the police to file a complaint about her husband’s sudden disappearance. Her goal is clear. She wants to draw media attention to herself at all costs. When her initial efforts fail she cleverly makes up a story connecting her husband's disappearance to a recent kidnapping of a child—a news that's been drawing everyone's attention.  Soon she is in the limelight she has been waiting for all her life. That’s not all. She is also able to use her newly acquired fame to keep the police as well as her relatives and friends at bay. 

“Breaking News in Yuba County” is essentially another of those dark comedies about the unquenchable American desire for fame. Sue's desire to become famous is a result of her misplaced belief that she is totally worthless. Deep down, she is overcome by a strong sense of rejection. She feels unwanted and under-appreciated by all those around her. And when she finds her husband in bed with another woman and that too on their anniversary she reaches her saturation point. She thinks that if she becomes famous everything around her will change. And so she embarks on a mission. She she plans her each and every step meticulously, even managing to fool her own journalist sister into believing that her husband has actually gone missing.

Todd Phillips' 2019 film “Joker” which is widely believed to be inspired by “The King of Comedy” also takes a similar route with its socially awkward protagonist Arthur Fleck (essayed by Joaquin Phoenix in an Oscar-winning performance) aspiring to become a famous stand-up comedian in order to prove himself worthy in his own eyes. He believes it to be the solution to all his problems. He dreams to be on his idol Murray Franklin’s talk show and even sends his clips to him in that hope that they will be featured on his show. But, to his surprise, Murray mocks Arthur by showing his clips. But, nevertheless, Arthur is invited to appear on Murray's show owing to the unexpected popularity of his comedy clips. But by now Arthur is aware that he will never be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a famous stand-up comedian. That by inviting him on his show Murray further wants to humiliate him. But he still honors the invitation and makes an appearance on the show. And, to everyone’s surprise, Arthur shoots Murray twice on live television, killing him.

Now, “Breaking News In Yuba County” is of course not in the same league as “Joker” or “The King of Comedy”. Its biggest undoing is a horde of half-baked characters and a series of nonsensical sceneries involving the secondary characters. The film is at its best when the focus is on Sue Buttons. But every time the plot's focus shifts to one of the other characters things begin to fall flat. Yes, Sue's character is written well but it's really Allison Janney's magic that makes it look like an entirely different film every time she is on the screen. It’s a performance of great subtlety and artifice. Allison Janney plays Sue so cleverly that we can't help but route for her even when she is involved in the vilest acts. That's how good she really is in the movie. While the performances from Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Samira Wiley, Jimmi Simpson, Bridget Everett, Awkwafina, and Wanda Sykes aren't bad by any means they all are let down by the shoddy work in the writing department.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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