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Dan Webster reviews "Tuesday"

Film still of Lola Petticrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Tuesday (2023).
Film still of Lola Petticrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Tuesday (2023).

DAN WEBSTER:

For many of us, death is the great puzzle of existence. Fear of what may come after it, as Shakespeare wrote, “doth make cowards of us all” and willing to “bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of […]”

Even worse, again for some of us, is the anguish of watching death come to someone we love, especially when that death is extended for weeks, months even years, all filled with continual shattered expectations and ever-increasing, seemingly unceasing, suffering and pain.

That’s the situation that Zora (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds herself in as a mother caring for her 20-something daughter Tuesday (played by Lola Petticrew) who is afflicted by an unnamed debilitating disease. Their mutual story plays out in the movie, titled Tuesday, which was written and directed by the Croatian first-time filmmaker Daina Oniunas-Pusić.

Unlike any number of other films, such as Mitchel Leisen’s 1934 offering Death Takes a Holiday or Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 work The Seventh Seal, the character of death in Oniunas-Pusić’s film isn’t played by the likes of a dapper Frederic March or a heavily made up Bengt Ekerot. In Tuesday, Death is personified as a shape-changing parrot whose voice sounds like that of an 80-year-old, lifelong, three-pack-a day smoker afflicted with laryngitis.

That voice belongs to the Nigerian-born actor Arinzé Kene, and we meet him—in bird form—in the film’s opening scenes. He is, we come to learn, the specter of Death—or at least of a release from life, if you choose to see it that way. Some of the people he encounters certainly view it as a relief, as they are—in one way or another—enduring insufferable agony until he—with just a wave of his wing—ends things for them.

The same is in store for Tuesday, our young protagonist who lives at home, cared for during the day by a nurse (played by Leah Harvey) and the rest of the time by doting mother Zora. But when Death appears, Tuesday surprises him by telling a joke (a typically corny one favored by dads). Then she begs a favor: "Just wait until mother returns," she asks. And Death, taken aback, agrees.

That, though, only begins what becomes a struggle between Mom and Death, Mom and Daughter and Mom and herself. The film clearly is meant to be a study of grief, played out both as a mother’s unwillingness to accept what must finally happen and the daughter’s insistence that Death is unavoidable and has to be faced.

All of this sounds familiar. It might describe what the characters played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger go through in James L. Brooks’ 1983 weeper Terms of Endearment. The big difference, though, is the bird.

Rendered in computer-generated imagery, this bird version of Death appears first as a creature small enough to fit inside a dying person’s ear. Throughout the film, though, the creature’s size changes, from that of a baby cicada to that of adult grizzly bear. And back again. Size, too, afflicts mom, who in her efforts to waylay Death at one point gobbles him up—only to, a short time later, unaccountably find herself having grown large enough to fill an entire room.

If this sounds absurd, you wouldn’t be wrong. And if you had trouble making sense of the magically realistic manner in which Oniunas-Pusić is working, you could hardly be faulted. Despite the intrinsic power of any story that involves a parent’s struggling to save a child from death, this attempt to convey that kind of emotional turmoil can feel more than a tad bizarre.

This is not to fault the acting of Petticrew, but especially not that of Louis-Dreyfus. Her long tenure on Seinfeld and award-winning run on the political HBO satire Veep accustomed us to think of her as a comic actor. And Tuesday has moments, a few of them, in which her comic side does emerge.

But Louis-Dreyfus has a talent for drama as well. And it is her ability to play serious roles that shines through in Tuesday, despite her having to play off a talking parrot in need of a throat lozenge that—all too ludicrously—is supposed to represent Death.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

——

Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokesman.com/7blog.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss a trio of movies that, each in its own distinctive way, explore the realms of imaginative fantasy—some, as always, better than others. The films are the theatrical releases “Inside Out 2” and “Tuesday,” followed by the streaming documentary “Brats.”