Breaking News in Yuba County is a pleasant, but unserious, female focused take on a Coen-style crime saga that benefits from a great cast.
The Coen Brothers have made epic sagas of dopey criminals downright ubiquitous. Breaking News of Yuba County follows in the tradition with director Tate Taylor (The Help, Ma) adding a modest twist to the story by focusing the narrative almost entirely on female characters. The film perhaps most echoes the tone of Burn After Reading, as an array of knuckleheads double, triple, and quadruple one another thanks to increasingly goofy circumstances.
Breaking News in Yuba County has an enviable gallery of actresses on display. Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), Wanda Sykes (Monster-in-Law), Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers), Mila Kunis (Bad Moms), Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale), Bridget Everett (Inside Amy Schumer)and Ellen Barkin (Switch) make for a near guaranteed pleasant watch. Some of the casting is a bit strange, such as Awkwafina as an aspiring gangster, but all the women seem to be committed to having fun with the material’s goofier elements.
Allison Janney, always a treasure, has the most to do here as lead Sue Buttons. After her husband passes away in the throes of an affair with another woman, Buttons quickly sees an opportunity to capitalize on his death and invigorate her staid life. She fast makes herself a local media celebrity through increasingly absurd press conference, lamenting the disappearance of her husband. The film pokes at the surface of a deeper dive into the culture of opportunistic reporting on tragedy, but Yuba County’s comedic impulses seem at odds with a more serious dive into modern media culture.
There is one scene where Janney’s gifts particularly elevate the material. Buttons sits before a TV and pridefully watches her own performance on the news earlier that day. It’s both a wonderfully meta moment of an actress in character praising her own character’s performance, and a moment of real emotion. The camera stays focused on Janney as she sells the moment– the mixture of smug satisfaction and blissful idiocy on her character’s face is simply wonderful.
The plot, as is natural in this sort of story, contorts itself into increasingly ridiculous machinations. Hall plays a detective tasked with investigating the disappearance, while Kunis and Lewis play reporters interested in the story. Sykes plays a furniture store manager hoping for an excuse to flex her criminal muscles. The various threads inevitably intersect, and violence ensues. Tate Taylor’s direction seems to come alive as the action picks up, and the film gains considerable momentum down the stretch. The men, including Jimmi Simpson (Westworld), Dominic Burgess (Feud), and Clifton Collins Jr. (Best Actor winner at Sundance last week for Jockey), are effective in more limited screen time. Burgess brings a pleasantly off-kilter energy that mixes well in his scenes with Regina Hall’s more stoic intensity, while Collins is amusingly menacing as a mob assassin.
After my screening of Breaking News in Yuba County, there was a Zoom Q&A with the director, writer and much of the cast. I think it is worth noting that very little of the conversation related to the actual film. It seemed like a bunch of friends reminiscing on a goofy experience they had all once shared. The film shares that vibe and, honestly, that’s not the worst tone for an hour and a half of your life. Everyone seems to be having a grand time, and the film makes for a pleasant enough distraction.