TULLY (2018)

May 3, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.

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RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)

August 9, 2015

ricki Greetings again from the darkness. Having worshiped at the acting alter of Meryl Streep since 1977 (her brief appearance in Julia), this frequent movie-goer takes great delight in seeing her donning a leather jacket and bangles while strumming an electric guitar. Somehow she continues to expand on her already unmatched diverse resume of movie characters – this time as an aging leader of a cover band that plays to a small but loyal audience at a Tarzana bar.

Ricki is no rock star, though she clearly chased the dream. We learn of this when we see her working as a checker at the local supermarket, and then again when her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her home to Indianapolis in a desperate attempt to pull their daughter Julie out of a suicidal depressive state brought on by her husband leaving for another woman. Julie is played by Ms. Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, and their bond plays out well enough on screen.

The movie’s peak occurs with the family dinner scene, as Ricki is united with her three kids, including sons Josh (Sebastian Stan – known in the Marvel world as Bucky Barnes) and Adam (Nick Westrate). It doesn’t take long before true emotions are bubbling over causing much discomfort throughout the restaurant. See, Ricki left her family to chase her music dream, leaving Kline and his second wife Maureen to provide a sense of normal family life. Maureen is played by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who sadly doesn’t get to “flash” her famous singing voice in a movie that is comprised of songs for about half of its running time.

Director Jonathan Demme (an Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs) and writer Diablo Cody (an Oscar winner for Juno) inexplicably drop the family drama soon after the dinner scene and we spend most of the second half watching Streep and Rick Springfield play out their dysfunctional relationship onstage. If you are unfamiliar with Springfield, he was a pop star in the 80’s and was the Dr. McDreamy predecessor while on “General Hospital”. Lately you may have seen him as the creepy plastic surgeon on “True Detective” … he looks much more normal here.

The band does a nice job with the familiar songs, and Streep is effective as the lead singer and audience favorite. However, even with Demme’s stellar track record with musical documentaries (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen), it’s difficult to understand why so much time is devoted to the musical performances after the extensive family drama set-up. A perfect example is that once the final act hits, Julie is given no more dialogue. It’s a strange turn.

The script does make a couple of very interesting points. The first involves the repercussions of a mother in chasing her dream … Ricki compares herself and perception to that of Mick Jagger. The second involves addressing the “job” of parents to love their kids. Either of these could be the central theme of a very interesting film, but as with other topics, the surface is barely scratched in this film. Despite the odd choices made by writer and director, it’s clear Ms. Streep is loving her time on stage … her version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” is alone worth the price of a ticket.

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YOUNG ADULT

December 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman reunite for the first time since breakout hit Juno. In that fine film, we were treated to many optimistic and sarcastic life lessons from a very likable, and easy to cheer for, pregnant teenage girl. This time around we get the caustic, childlike self-centeredness of a mid-30’s alcoholic sadly trying to recapture the magic of her high school years as the prom queen dating the coolest guy.

Ms. Cody and Mr. Reitman deserve much credit for steering clear of the Hollywood traditions of redemption, remorse, and turning over a new leaf. In fact, we probably dislike Mavis (Charlize Theron) even more as the movie ends than we did in the film’s first 5 minutes, if that’s even possible. It takes courage as a filmmaker to have a lead character who is disliked through the entire movie, not just by the people in her life, but also by the audience. It also takes a special actress to pull this off. If you saw Theron in her Oscar winning role in Monster, believe me when I say that she is equally unsympathetic here … though she does commit fewer actual crimes.

 This film is erroneously marketed as a smart comedy. While there are some funny elements, it’s difficult to find much humor in someone who is so unstable and narcissistic. Wisely, the script provides us with Matt (Patton Oswalt) as the voice of reason. He sees through the Mavis mask and speaks directly in his attempts to divert her from her plan. That plan is to break up the marriage of her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Oh yeah, he just happens to be happily married (Elizabeth Reaser) with a newborn baby.

 The best scenes of the film are between Mavis and Matt. She is oblivious to her negative effect on others, while he shoots her straight while avoiding his own harsh reality. See, Matt was the victim of a vicious hate crime, which left his leg (and other things) mangled. His own view of life is why he can see right through Mavis and her issues. While I so admire the basis of the script, I just believe there is a missing element. The element of hope and optimism. Heck, even when Mavis admits she “might be an alcoholic”, her parents shrug it off and change topics. Sometimes crying out for help just isn’t enough.

The film is worth seeing for the performances of Theron and Oswalt, as well as for the unique script. Just don’t get tricked into believing it’s some laugh-riot with a fairy tale ending. Mavis is a ghost writer for teen novels, and she writes the latest as she lives this nightmare of a trip back home. My only real question … is she mature enough to write for teens?

note: Director Jason Reitman has had a very impressive start to his career.  I highly recommend his first three movies: Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two Oscar caliber performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt OR you want to see a Hollywood rarity – a leading lady with no redemptive qualities

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a little “sunshine” in the story rather than constant clouds with an occasional lightning bolt

watch the trailer: