The mash-up at the heart of Breaking News in Yuba County makes perfect sense, even if the results are terrible. The film takes the lacerating cynicism of Gus Van Sant's 1995 newsmedia satire To Die For and mixes it in with the "several idiots trying to run several different cons; violent farce ensues" of Joel & Ethan Coen's 2008 Burn After Reading. And once we get to "Coen movie about hopeless idiots trying to do a crime but it goes spectacular wrong and lots of people die", we're basically already at their 1996 film Fargo, and the idea of crossing To Die For with Fargo is basically the best indie movie pitch of 1997. Which could easily have been the year that the script for Breaking News in Yuba County was written, so ossified are its thoughts about the venal things people get up to in the name of scraping together a little more fame and a little more money and a little more respect than they have right now.

The film comes to us from first-time feature screenwriter Amanda Idoko and multi-time feature director Tate Taylor, so it's easier to blame him; making slightly-to-extremely awful movies is something of a specialty of his. And Breaking News might very well be his worst. At the very least, it surely must be his most jaw-dropping waste of talent. Let me just throw some names at you: Allison Janney, Regina Hall, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina Wanda Sykes, Clifton Collins Jr, Matthew Modine, Ellen Barkin, Juliette Lewis. These people are all in the cast of Breaking News in Yuba County; none of them are funny in it. Indeed, the only performer in the entire ensemble about whom I'd say, yep he gave a pretty solid, appealing comic performance is Jimmi Simpson, who has had a steady enough career on television, but not the sort of thing that should put him in a position to consistently, and not apparently on purpose, keep stealing scenes from Wanda Sykes. Yet here we are. Obviously, even a great actor is capable of getting on the wrong track and giving a poor performance across the entire length of a feature, and other than maybe Hall, there's nobody here I'd call a great comic actor. But damn near all of them are at least good, and very reliable at it. To get a bad performance out of a reliably good actor is a misfortune; to get bad performances out of this many actors starts to feel like malpractice.

But it's all par for the course with a movie that's just so unbelievably bad at being funny. The film goes like this: Sue Buttons (Janney) is celebrating her birthday, and things are going terribly badly: her co-workers through a party for one of the other employees, her local TV news reporter sister Nancy (Kunis - and while the film takes the time to explain itself here, casting Janney and Kunis as half-sisters is just a disastrous creative choice) has forgotten her, her husband Karl (Modine) has both forgotten and is planning on ditching her to have sex with his mistress (Bridget Everett, the victim of the movie's most meanspirited jokes). When Sue inadvertently stumbles upon this latter betrayal, it shocks Karl so much that he has a heart attack and dies, and here is the film's first misstep. Okay, so that's generous. It has been clear basically from the first beats of the film that it's sense of humor is broad and mean, the kind of untargeted sarcasm that has no real perspective other than being way more sophisticated than its smudgily-drawn characters, and assumes that saying "haha this is stupid" is the same as wit.

But it's possible to imagine a better film than this one built on the same bones, right up until Sue watches Karl die. Here's the thing: Janney has put everything she's got into portraying Sue as a sweet dimwit, a nice middle-aged lady from suburbia who's all desperate pep built around dowdy outfits and cloying "you are good, you are kind" bromides provided by soulless self-help gurus like local chat show personality Gloria Michaels (Lewis, giving the film's second-best performance, though she's leaning awfully hard on obvious, trite tricks to establish what a shallow narcissist Gloria is). The film views her as pathetic and loathsome for this, but at least it's a clear, consistent type. And it's easy enough to see how she might fit into a media satire, except that the moment Sue sees Karl's corpse, Janney's performance turns as surely as if a flip was switched. Suddenly she's calculating, merciless, a full-on sociopath ready to use this event to gain the respect and prominence that she has been denied. Nothing wrong with that characterisation either, except if that's where it's going to head, surely you need to do something to seed it earlier in the film? Not that there's all that much "earlier in the film", but there's enough to give us a good sense of who Sue is, and it's not really this. So that's a mark against the film right exactly as its story is actually starting.

That story: Sue buries Karl's body and then starts spreading around the story that he's gone missing, getting herself on the television news and becoming a local tragic celebrity (Breaking News in Yuba County seems not to realise that social media exists). To keep interest in her story alive, she steadily adds increasingly elaborate lies about what might have caused unknown bad guys to take him. This comes as a shock to the actual bad guys to whom Karl owed money, gangster enforcers Mina (Awkwafina) and Ray (Collins). And a better sign of the film's inability to handle "comedy" or "comic actors" than casting Awkwafina as a Tarantino-esque quippy thug and having the results be this stilted and painful, I cannot name. So they try to shake down Karl's brother Peter (Simpson), a jailbird who has recently gotten his life on track thanks to his patient, pregnant wife Jonelle (Samira Wiley, who gives the third-best performance, and the last good one). His attempts to handle this threat stir the imagination of his boss at a low-rent furniture store, Rita (Sykes), who decides to become his gangster buddy, much to the disgust of her short-tempered partner, Debbie (Barkin). While this all plays out, detective Cam Harris (Hall, wearing an aggressively awful wig that I'm sure is meant to be "funny") tries to point out to the rest of the police force all the ludicrous holes in Sue's story.

That's just so much plot, and Taylor and Idoko mangle it beneath tonelessly unfunny comedy: it's a sluggish, mean film that is banking everything on having a zany screwball-style zip to it, but Taylor doesn't have the flexibility to make a live-action cartoon, nor the ability to guide his actors towards the kind of fearless absurdity of a Coen film. Honestly, other than Octavia Spencer in Ma, I can't think of a single performance he's ever directed that's even close to the bubbling-over camp energy that the movie desperately needs if it's going to recuperate its savage hatred of its characters as funny, rather than just unpleasant. Hell, it doesn't even look energetic, in its muted, dusky images, underlit by cinematographer Christina Voros)

And even if it had done that, I'm not sure that there would be any salvaging the bobble-headed satire of sensationalist media coverage and people who just desperately want to be famous no matter what. For one thing, it is stale as hell - I enjoyed To Die For a whole lot when it was new and trenchant a quarter of a century ago, and the last time that anything in Breaking News in Yuba County might have seemed even a little bit insightful would have been in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. And given the braying, self-satisfied way that the script sells its jokes, it surely wouldn't have worked then, even if it didn't feel so horribly fossilised. The film is just a terrible thing, dumb and unfunny but very insistently convinced of its own sharp thinking, and in love with the terrible impersonal performances it's dragging out of its game, doomed cast. I'm no fan of contemporary film comedy in general, but this is just on an entirely separate level of grating awfulness.