Review: ‘Breaking News in Yuba County,’ starring Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Samira Wiley and Regina Hall

February 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Allison Janney in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo courtesy of Anna Kooris/MGM)

“Breaking News in Yuba County”

Directed by Tate Taylor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. Southern city of Stanlow, the dark comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A lonely, middle-aged woman pretends that her philandering criminal husband has been kidnapped (even though he really died of a heart attack), so that she can get sympathy and attention.

Culture Audience: “Breaking News in Yuba County” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Allison Janney and to people who don’t mind watching incoherent movies about people behaving badly.

Allison Janney, Mila Kunis and Regina Hall in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo Anna Kooris/MGM)

Oscar-winning actress Allison Janney has worked with director Tate Taylor in all of his feature films so far, and she usually plays supporting or minor characters in these movies. The dark and violent comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the first Taylor-directed film where Janney is front and center as the movie’s lead character. And it’s a dreadful misstep not only for Taylor and Janney but also for everyone involved in this embarrassing mess. “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose producers include Taylor and Jake Gyllenhaal) is proof that having a talented cast doesn’t automatically equal a good movie.

In “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose horrendous screenplay was written by Amanda Idoko), Janney portrays Sue Buttons, a lonely woman who feels neglected and under-appreciated and goes to extreme lengths to get attention. The movie shows obvious signs that Sue doesn’t get the respect that she thinks she deserves, to try and make her look sympathetic. But her personality and actions are so off-putting (and so are almost all of the characters in this stinker film) that the movie’s attempts to be comedic are pathetic and monotonous.

“Breaking News in Yuba County” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state in the South, in a fictional city called Stanlow, located in Yuba County. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see Sue listening to motivational affirmations on her iPod as she goes to a supermarket. She repeats these mantras several times throughout the movie: “My story matters. I am enough. I am confident.” Sue’s self-directed pep talks do little to change the way that the outside world treats her. And something happens on her birthday that causes her to snap and go from being a mild-mannered, law-abiding citizen to being a stone-cold, heartless fraudster.

She arrives at the grocery store to pick up her small birthday cake, which is inscribed with the words “Happy Birthday, Sue.” But Sue notices that the “e” looks more like a “c.” She points out this mistake to the pastry worker behind the counter, with a tone of voice implying that she wants the error corrected. But the worker just ignores Sue’s attempt to assert herself and asks if Sue is paying by cash or credit.

Sue is married to a corrupt banker named Karl (played by Matthew Modine), who’s first seen at their home talking dirty to a woman whom he plans to meet later for a sexual tryst. Sue doesn’t know about this affair but she’ll soon find out on her birthday. She’ll also find out later about her husband’s illegal activities. In the meantime, Sue has made plans for her and Karl to have a romantic dinner at a restaurant on her birthday.

But as soon as she arrives home, Karl is out the door to go meet up with his mistress. Meanwhile, Sue takes her birthday cake and makes the correction on the letter “e” herself. She then goes to her job, a place called Sidewinder Safety Tubs, where she works in customer service at a call center. The only work on the job that the movie shows her doing is taking one phone call from a rude customer who curses at her.

Considering all the ludicrous shenanigans that Sue gets up to later that take up all of her time, the movie shouldn’t have bothered showing her having a job at all. This movie is so badly written that it’s never explained how Sue took all the time off from work that she takes to try to cover up her web of lies. But the filmmakers seem to assume that everyone who’s watching this movie is as idiotic as the characters.

Sue just happens to be driving near a motel when she sees Karl’s car parked outside. She gets out and sees him holding some flowers and going into a motel room while calling a woman inside “honey” before he shuts the door. An alarmed Sue goes to the motel’s front desk and correctly assumes that the room is reserved in Karl’s name. Sue tells the front desk clerk that she’s his wife and pretends to have accidentally locked herself out of that room, so she asks for a spare key.

Sure enough, when Sue lets herself into the motel room, Karl is having sex with another woman, whose name is Leah Norton (played by Bridget Everett), whom Sue has never met before. Sue gets angry, while Karl and Leah are naturally startled and horrified at being caught. Karl is so surprised that he falls off the bed, has a heart attack, and dies.

While Leah is freaking out and babbling, Sue finds out that Leah is also married. She slaps Leah and tells her that she will inform Leah’s husband about Leah’s cheating if Leah doesn’t leave the motel immediately. Sue also tells Leah that Sue will take care of the problem of Karl’s dead body. Leah doesn’t hesitate to quickly leave the motel.

Instead of being upset that Karl is dead, Sue forlornly says out loud as she sits on the bed, “You forgot my birthday.” Sue then hatches a plan to bury the body in a lot near the motel. This movie is so stupid, that it shows Sue digging the grave in plain view where anyone could have easily seen her. But there would be no “Breaking News in Yuba County” if she were caught that quickly and easily.

Meanwhile, Sue doesn’t find out until after Karl dies that he was involved in a money-laundering scheme with some local criminals, who used Karl to launder millions of dollars. The people in this illegal enterprise are a ruthless crime boss named Mr. Kim (played by Keong Sim); his sometimes-bungling daughter Mina (played by Awkafina), who tries to be as tough as her father; a menacing, trigger-happy thug named Ray (played by Clifton Collins Jr.); and Karl’s younger brother Petey (played by Jimmi Simpson), who’s been trying to leave his criminal life behind.

Petey works as a salesperson at a furniture store named Rita’s, owned by a sassy lesbian named Rita (played by Wanda Sykes), who manages the store with her equally feisty live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Ellen Barkin). Rita and Debbie know that Petey has a criminal background, but he’s told them that he’s trying to “go straight” and stay out of trouble. Debbie is often suspicious of Petey and sometimes accuses him of stealing from the store. Meanwhile, Rita has a friendly rapport with Petey, and she strangely tells Petey that she wouldn’t mind too much if he was caught stealing because she would understand that he would be stealing out of desperation.

Sue is fixated on a local news/public affairs TV program called “The Gloria Michaels Show,” which has been doing constant coverage of a missing 13-year-old girl named Emma Rose. After Sue has buried Karl’s body, she goes home and watches the show. She has a silent “a-ha” moment when she sees Emma Rose’s parents Jonathan and Robin (played by Michael A. Newcomer and Liz Elkins Newcomer) being interviewed by host Gloria Michaels (played by Juliette Lewis), who tells the distraught parents that they have the unwavering support of the community in finding Emma Rose. Gloria is a TV personality who’s a mix of Nancy Grace and Deborah Norville, even down to having the same type of blonde bob hairstyle and Southern accent.

Sue decides that she can get the public’s sympathy and attention if she pretends that Karl is missing. Sue calls the restaurant to cancel the dinner reservation by saying that her husband isn’t feeling well. It’s a discrepancy (and plot hole) that a good investigation team would be able to uncover when Sue later reports that Karl is missing. She foolishly claimed that Karl disappeared during the time she said that he was too “sick” to go to the restaurant. Another big plot hole is that Sue never bothers to contact anyone to try to look for Karl. But, of course, this movie has incompetent cops who investigate and overlook many of these things that would expose her lies.

Sue goes to the local police station to report Karl’s disappearance, but the officer on duty, Detective Cam Harris (played by Regina Hall), is impatient and dismissive, especially when Sue tells her that Karl has been missing for less than 48 hours. Detective Harris doesn’t file a report and instead advises Sue to ask Karl’s friends and relatives if they know where he is, because many missing spouses usually have just gone somewhere without telling their spouses. Once again, Sue feels ignored and disrespected.

The gravity of what Sue has done begins to sink in with her. When she goes home, she has a meltdown and starts trashing her house. She picks up the birthday cake, as if she’s going to destroy it too, but she can’t bring herself to do it. It’s symbolic of how she’ll take extreme measures later in the story to save herself and destroy others, just so she won’t be exposed for committing the crimes of illegal disposal of a corpse and lying to the police.

Sue has a younger half-sister named Nancy (played by Mila Kunis), who comes over to visit shortly after Sue has her meltdown. The house looks like it’s been ransacked, so Sue pretends to be distraught that Karl is missing. Sue also plays along with Nancy’s assumption that Karl was probably kidnapped during a home invasion.

It just so happens that Nancy is a highly ambitious and competitive TV reporter who works for a local station that’s a rival to the station that has “The Gloria Michaels Show.” Sue and Nancy see Karl’s “disappearance” as an opportunity to get media attention for themselves. Predictably, Nancy offers to interview Sue on TV about the “disappearance.” Nancy doesn’t really care that Karl could be missing; she just wants to get a “news scoop” over the competition.

This TV interview is the first time that Petey finds out that his older brother Karl is missing. And that’s a problem because Karl had $3 million that he was supposed to launder, so now that money is missing too. In a panic, Petey tells Mina and Ray that he doesn’t know where Karl or the money is. And inexplicably, Mina decides to tell Petey that she and Ray have kidnapped Karl, so that they can extort $20,000 in ransom money from Petey. It’s a dumb decision by any standard, but it’s an example of how bad this movie is.

What follows is a convoluted and messy farce, with betrayals, more lies, and people inevitably getting killed in brutal ways. Detective Harris is the only cop on the case who gets suspicious of Sue. But Detective Harris is stonewalled by her dimwitted junior cop partner Officer Jones (played by T.C. Matherne) and their boss Captain Riggins (played by Dominic Burgess), who both think that Sue doesn’t seem like the type who could be a criminal mastermind. It’s a subtle commentary on how certain people, because of their physical appearance, are given a “privileged pass” with law enforcement.

The movie has a few supporting characters that don’t have much to do except be possible targets of violence. Petey has a pregnant girlfriend named Jonelle (played by Samira Wiley), who grows concerned at how strange he’s been acting lately. Her pregnancy only seems to be in the movie so there’s an inevitable scene of a pregnant woman in a vicious fight. And then there’s one of Karl’s bank colleagues named Steve (played by Chris Lowell), who doesn’t do much but act frightened when Mina and Ray predictably show up at the bank to look for Karl.

This type of low-quality movie usually has a cast of unknown actors. But it’s very disappointing to see how many talented and famous actors (who are all known for doing much better work elsewhere) are in this atrocious movie. Not even the action stunts are interesting to watch.

And the tone of the film is horribly uneven, as the actors do their performances as if they’re in very different films. Awkwafina, Barkin, Sykes, Kunis, Hall and Simpson act as if they’re in a goofy slapstick comedy. Matherene, Burgess, Wiley and Lowell act as if they’re in a serious drama. Janney, Lewis, Collins, Sim and Everett come closest to capturing the movie’s intended dark satire. Modine isn’t in the movie long enough for most viewers to care about his Karl character, who seems to be despicable anyway.

Almost as annoying as this movie’s characters is the music score by Jeff Beal, because it’s the epitome of sitcom smarm. Given how violent this movie is, the music is completely out-of-place and awkward, because it sounds like something that should be for an outdated family comedy series on TV. The overall direction of the movie is lazy, as if Taylor just let the actors do their own thing instead of having a cohesive tone for the film. And clearly, the filmmakers didn’t do enough to fix the many problems in the screenplay.

It seems as if “Breaking News in Yuba County” tried and failed to be like a Guy Ritchie crime film, by having a story where lawbreakers comically try to outdo each other in absurd ways, while they attempt to cover up everything and blame their misdeeds on other people. There are plenty of female-centric dark comedy satires that get all the elements right, including 2017’s “I, Tonya,” the movie that garnered Janney her Academy Award. Sometimes bad movies are fun to watch, but “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the type of irritating movie where viewers can’t wait for it to be over and won’t care what happens to the characters in the end.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “Breaking News in Yuba County” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Call Your Mother,’ starring David Spade, Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Roy Wood Jr., Norm Macdonald, Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett and Fortune Feimster

May 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Spade and his mother, Judy Todd, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Jenna Rosher/Comedy Central)

“Call Your Mother”

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Culture Representation: The documentary “Call Your Mother” features a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) group of mostly American comedians talking about how their mothers have affected their lives, with some of the comedians’ mothers also participating in the documentary,.

Culture Clash: Some of the comedians describe having nonconformist or dysfunctional childhoods that are often used as material for their stand-up comedy acts.

Culture Audience: “Call Your Mother” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about the family backgrounds of some well-known comedians.

Louie Anderson with a picture of his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Alex Takats/Comedy Central)

If you ask any stand-up comedian who’s the family member most likely to inspire material for their stand-up comedy act, chances are the comedian will answer, “My mother.” With that in mind, the documentary “Call Your Mother” interviews a variety of comedians (and some of their mothers) to talk about how with these mother-child relationships have affected the comedians’ lives. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Call Your Mother” might not have a deep impact on society, but it accomplishes what it intends to do. The film is a mostly light-hearted, sometimes emotionally moving and occasionally raunchy ride that will give some psychological insight into how and why these comedians ended up where they are now.

“Call Your Mother” includes interviews with a notable list of comedians (almost all of them are American), including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Bridget Everett, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Judah Friedlander, Jim Gaffigan, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Bobby Lee, the Lucas Brothers, Norm Macdonald, Jim Norton, Tig Notaro, Yvonne Orji, Kristen Schaal, David Spade and Roy Wood Jr.

In some cases, the mothers of these comedians are interviewed alongside their comedic children: Everett, Feimster, Schaal, Spade and Wood all have wisecracking moments with their mothers, who are also shown in the audiences while their children are on stage, as well as backstage or at home. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Macdonald is also interviewed with his mother.  (For whatever reason, no Latino comedians are in the documentary, which is a shame, because there are many Latino comedians who talk about their mothers in their stand-up acts.)

Bridget Everett’s mother, Freddie Everett, is memorable for being as foul-mouthed and crude as Bridget. (Freddie even gives the middle finger to the camera, but all in good fun.) Bridget Everett says, “My mother is really one of a kind. She’s the person you meet that you never forget. She can be kind of mean, but somehow she gets away with it.”

Bridget continues, “She’s got a real naughty streak in her,” when describing how her mother was the type to wear very revealing outfits in places where it would be inappropriate for a woman’s breasts to be openly displayed. “There’s something really liberating about that in a small, conservative town.”

Like many of the comedians interviewed in this documentary, Bridget Everett is a child of divorce. After her parents’ divorce, her mother Freddie (who raised six kids) would take a pre-teen Bridget with her to stalk her ex-husband, mainly to see if he was dating anyone new or other reasons to spy on his post-divorce love life.

Bridget remembers her mother telling her to look in windows and report what she saw to her mother. These experiences are part of Bridget Everett’s stand-up act.  And just like her mother used to do when she was young, Bridget Everett dresses in cleavage-baring outfits on stage. “My mom pulses through my performance,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to her.”

British comedian Carr says although his mother “was the funny person in the house,” she often suffered from depression. He turned to comedy to help cheer her up. He says of stand-up comedians: “Most of us come from unhappy childhoods.”

Fans of Louie Anderson already know about how he grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother, because he’s used his childhood as joke material in his stand-up act for years. In the documentary, Anderson (who’s been doing stand-up comedy since 1978) says that he started out doing self-deprecating fat jokes, but he eventually switched to mostly jokes about his family when he saw that it got a stronger reaction from audiences. He also says that dressing in drag for his Christine Baskets character in the FX comedy series “Baskets” was a tribute to his mother, Ora Zella Anderson.

Anderson believes that there’s a reason why so many stand-up comedians come from dysfunctional, often abusive households: “I think comics are about control. They’re trying to control the whole situation, because we had no control growing up.”

Anderson also echoes what most stand-up comedians said in Comedy Central’s documentary “This Is Stand-Up” about gravitating to stand-up comedy because it was their way of being the center of attention and getting unconditional love from people, even if it’s for the limited time that the comedians are on stage.

Spade is another child of divorce. His father left his mother when he was a child, and he says it had long-lasting effects on him and undying respect for his mother, Judy Todd. “My mom is very positive and upbeat and also very funny and clever.”

Todd is seen visiting the set of her son’s talk show “Lights Out With David Spade” on her 82nd birthday, where the audience shouts “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’s invited on stage with the interview guests. Todd is somewhat “normal,” compared to what other comedians have to say about their mothers. She’s almost downright reserved, since she doesn’t do anything to embarrass her son.

The same can’t be said for what comedians Koy, Lee and Gold have to say about their mothers, whose cringeworthy mothering techniques have been fodder for much of these two comedians’ stand-up comedy acts. Koy, who was raised by his divorced Filipino mother, Josie Harrison, remembers how his outspoken mother would inflict terror on anyone who would dare to criticize him.

Bobby Lee talks about how his Korean immigrant mother, Jeanie Lee, used to call his name to get his attention, just so she could fart in front of him. And when they would go to a shopping mall, she would encourage Lee and his younger brother to play in the shopping-mall fountain, while she would take a nap on the floor in a store. Lee, who is a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, also claims that his mother was fairly good-natured about his multiple trips to rehab, whereas most other mothers would be horrified or ashamed. He describes a moment during a family rehab meeting where his mother got the family to laugh so hard in what was supposed to be a serious gathering, they almost got kicked out of the meeting.

Judy Gold says in the documentary that she had the quintessential nagging, over-protective Jewish mother, Ruth Gold, who liked to leave long, demanding phone messages. Gold’s mother passed away in 2015, but Gold still plays some of her mother’s phone messages in her stand-up comedy act. She also plays some of the phone messages in the documentary and remembers that she did not get much overt affection from her parents when she was growing up.

Gold also says that her parents weren’t the type to hug their children and say, “I love you.” Instead, in her family, people would be rewarded based on whoever did the best to “one-up” the others with a quip. Still, Gold says that toward the end of her mother’s life, she did express her love more openly, and she shares an emotionally touching memory of what happened the last time she spoke with her mother.

One of the issues that the documentary covers is how mothers react when they find out that their children want to be professional comedians. Roy Wood Jr. says it was a very uncomfortable experience for him, since he had dropped out of Florida A&M University after being put on probation for shoplifting. He secretly started doing stand-up comedy in 1999, and when he told his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, that he wanted to do stand-up comedy full-time, she was very upset.

“She definitely felt my priorities were in the wrong place,” he says. So, in order to please his mother, Roy went back to Florida A&M. And when he graduated, he gave his mother the plaque of the college degree that “I didn’t need” and began pursuing a full-time comedy career. Now that he’s become a successful comedian (including a stint as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”), Wood says of his mother’s approval: “These days, I feel supported.”

When comedian/actress Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was 4 years old, her mother died, so when she was growing up, her paternal grandmother was Awkwafina’s main mother figure. While most people in Awkwafina’s family had expectations for her to going into a traditional profession, her paternal grandmother encouraged Awkwafina to pursue her dreams in entertainment.

Although many of these comedians say vulgar things about their families in their stand-up acts, the documentary shows that a lot of stand-up comedians have a soft spot for their mothers and like to hang out with them. Kristen Schaal and her look-alike mother, Pam Schaal, are seen shopping together at a fabric store. Norm Macdonald and his mother, Ferne Macdonald, play Scrabble and golf together. Wood’s mother Joyce accompanies him to a tuxedo fitting.

But not all of these mother-child moments are warm and fuzzy. Some of the comedians, such as Norton and Spade, admit to changing their shows to being less offensive and less raunchy if they know their mothers are going to be in the audience.

Norton says that he’s felt uncomfortable at times when his sex life (which he talks about in his stand-up comedy routine) is a topic of conversation with his mother. Norton remembers how after he did a stand-up show where he talked about his experiences of hiring hookers, he got a call from his mother suggesting that he join a gym to meet new people and improve his dating life. (In the documentary, he even plays the voice mail from 2001 to prove it.)

As for talking about their mothers in their stand-up comedy acts, Koy says that it was hard for him to do at first, but his mother and the rest of his family have gotten used to it. Feinstein says about her mother: “She likes it when I impersonate her. She gets upset if I don’t.”

Fortune Feimster says something similar, in an interview seated next her mother, Ginger Feimster: “She would rather me talk about her and be the center of attention than me not talk about her at all,” Fortune says. “She’s a good sport and she likes the attention.” Ginger Feimster says in response, “That is so true.”

Whether these comedians’ relationships with their mothers have been good or not-so-good, one thing that most people can agree on is a sentiment that Gold expresses in the movie that is a tried and true cliché: “There’s nothing like a mother’s love.” And at the very least, this documentary might inspire people to get in touch with their mothers to express gratitude if their mothering wasn’t a complete disaster.

Comedy Central premiered “Call Your Mother” on May 10, 2020.