‘Tuesday’ review: An annoying fairy tale that will make you yearn for Death’s sweet embrace

<div>‘Tuesday’ review: An annoying fairy tale that will make you yearn for Death’s sweet embrace</div>
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in

Daina O. Pusić’s directorial feature-length debut Tuesday is a confoundingly bad work of cinema. The story of a mother who can’t accept her ailing daughter’s impending demise, and the bird-like personification of Death who arrives to teach them lessons about moving on, it has all the makings of a gentle fairytale about loss. However, it ends up visually, narratively, and tonally janky at every possible turn.

It’s the kind of film that, though it has a handful of deft ideas, seems poised for failure from the start. No two of its concepts ever seem to connect — at least, not until it finally starts to tell an actual story in its final few minutes. Up until that point, it’s gruelingly awkward to sit through.

While it at least has the decency to wrap up in under two hours, it feels like a much longer and more punishing affair. If there’s one area where the movie succeeds, it’s in making the viewer, like some of its characters, yearn for Death’s sweet embrace.

What is Tuesday about?

The film’s introductory scene is filled with morbid intrigue, as an aged red macaw (who can occasionally change size) is drawn to dying people by way of their inner monologues, which the ancient bird is cursed to hear from a distance. These numerous, overlapping psychic messages — desperate prayers for release mixed in with paralyzing fear — lure the half-blind creature to people on their deathbeds. The only way he can experience momentary respite is by closing their eyes with his gentle wing, until the next voice comes a-calling.

This would make for a wonderful short about the nature of death — or Death with a capital “D,” Pusić’s imagined avian embodiment — as a reluctant force in search of an impossible tranquility. However, Tuesday suddenly switches gears to the mopey, malformed tale of a distant American mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and her terminally ill English daughter Tuesday (Lola Petticrew), who live in some nondescript English setting shot with a bland, noncommittal palette.

Tuesday needs constant medical care, while Zora is comically and absurdly absent, and unable to so much as acknowledge that her daughter could die at any second. While the movie hints at denial as the central wedge between them, it spends an agonizingly long time presenting this idea in astonishingly ill-considered ways. Louis-Dreyfus, though she proves wonderfully adept at accessing the story’s nuances near the end, spends far too much of her screen time in a broad comedic mode, portraying Zora’s withdrawal from her dying daughter less as a tragedy and more as the kind of immature obliviousness one might expect from a Will Ferrell comedy.

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Tuesday, meanwhile, practically suffocates to death in her wheelchair, which summons Death to her side. However, it turns out she either recovers or was faking her final moments — it’s not quite clear which — leading to not only a delay in Death doing his job, but a completely bizarre series of interactions between them. This in turns dovetails into a jaw-droppingly strange comedy-drama that can’t reconcile its images with their meaning.

What is the deal with Death?

Lola Petticrew co-stars in "Tuesday."


Credit: Kevin Baker / A24

Voiced by a raspy Arinzé Kene, Death begins chatting with Tuesday, who requests a little more time so she can reconnect with her mother before she dies. It’s a sweet concept to be sure, but the movie spends an inordinate amount of screen time on circular conversations between Death and Tuesday (and eventually, between Death and Zora) filled with riddles, but lacking in actual substance.

The film, much to its detriment, recalls J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, in which Liam Neeson voices a similarly grizzled fantasy character (in this case, a talking tree) who guides a young boy through the process of his mother’s death. Both films, however, become invested in their fairytale symbolism to the point of distraction; they may be about confronting denial, but they feel in denial themselves. In the case of Tuesday, the movie’s inability to engage with its own subject matter takes baffling form, like magical realism that feels neither magical nor realistic, or Tuesday and Death rapping along to Ice Cube in a manner that’s neither funny nor poignant, but some secret third thing (a puzzling waste of time).

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Death is also incredibly difficult to read, despite being a central character whose personality is presented front and center. His defining physical attribute is his photorealistic resemblance to a real macaw, which results in a problem similar to Disney’s live-action remake of The Lion King: a total lack of facial expression. While this can theoretically be off-set by a skillful vocal performance, Kene’s gravelly delivery is aimed entirely at creating “a voice” rather than a character with depth and idiosyncrasy, yielding jarring tonal shifts when the character suddenly cackles at something humorous, in a way that’s usually hard to read.

Then there’s the question of what happens to the wider world when Death is temporarily off the clock, first because he takes a liking to Tuesday, and then because Zora job-blocks him when she realizes her daughter is going to die. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Tuesday would have been better off ignoring this question entirely, because its half-hearted attempts to address it are jaw-dropping in their optics.

The occasional scene of someone badly injured in a car accident but unable to die, or an elderly person waiting to cross over to the other side, ought to be hints enough that the world can’t slow down for one family. Mournful dialogue, rather than any visual depiction, doubles down on this point, suggesting society has turned upside down. However, this is conveyed through the horrid implications — framed as entirely tragic — that stabbing victims can no longer die, and desperate migrants can no longer drown, which is perhaps the most profoundly ugly and cynical view any movie has had of death in recent memory.

But even apart from these oddities and their nasty political implications, Tuesday is simply too ill-conceived as a work of visual storytelling to connect on any level.

The terrible filmmaking of Tuesday.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in "Tuesday."


Credit: Kevin Baker / A24

Pusić, who has written and directed four short films previous to making Tuesday, has a bewildering lack of tonal and visual control. If one were to learn that Elaine from Seinfeld wrestles a giant bird in this movie, as both characters tumble around a child’s bedroom while squawking and screaming, one might reasonably assume a tongue-in-cheek approach. But such a scene in Tuesday is presented in an entirely straightforward manner, with no understanding that this surreal representation of denial is also fundamentally slapstick.

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Not only are the images disconnected from wider meaning in Tuesday, they’re also disconnected from themselves. Death, and eventually, through magical circumstances, Zora, both grow and shrink throughout the film, transforming down to either a few inches tall or several feet larger than they ought to be, during which vital conversations about dying ensue. The problem this poses is that these scenes rarely boast a coherent sense of size and space, similar to, say, Cats or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, as opposed to the way Peter Jackson used forced perspective shots on The Lord of the Rings to make Gandalf and Frodo the correct sizes in their environments. 

The result is complete visual incomprehensibility, thanks to dramatic scenes in which it’s unclear where characters are looking, or where they’re even standing or sitting in relation to one another. The eye spends so much time trying to piece together the movie’s garish visual illusions that the mind and heart have little room to concentrate on what the story is trying to say.

Then again, what Tuesday is trying to say — about refusing to accept the inevitable — is often buried beneath a mess of distracting tonal inconsistency, and a screenplay that constantly pushes any legitimate dramatic confrontation of death into its background. It does eventually reach a place where its emotions feel raw, and Louis-Dreyfus is allowed to dig into difficult dramatic territory. But by the time this happens, the movie will likely have annoyed the patience out of even the most forgiving viewers.  

Tuesday is now in theaters.

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