Julia Louis-Dreyfus Takes on Death, Wins

“Because I could not stop for death
He kindly stopped for me.”
—Emily Dickinson

“He’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible! This… is an Ex-Parrot!”
—John Cleese

The macaw is tiny at first — small enough, in fact, to nestle in the space between a man’s tear duct and the side of his nose. Then he grows to an enormous height, possibly 10 feet or so. Walking over a person lying prone on the ground, clearly in pain and clearly still in the bargaining phase of dying begs for more time. The bird listens, intently, then waves its wing over the person’s head and, in a gesture, snuffs out their inner candle. It flies off to half dozen other places, doing the same to others. Some welcome him. Some spit at him. But every encounter ends the same. Polly does not want a cracker. It wants to guide these folks to an eternal resting place. Death takes many forms, from chess-playing grim reapers to a red mist. Here, the way of all flesh comes in the form of a parrot. Look, it could have been a helluva lot worse. It could have been a pelican.

Credit Tuesday‘s writer-director Daina Oniunas-Pusic for introducing this concept of Azrael as a cosmic tropical bird before we’ve had a chance to meet the two humans we’ll follow in this offbeat, ethereal dramedy. It takes a second to wrap your head around this notion, much less to accept that the last thing someone might see is a giant, scarred macaw. Cultures have given death thousand of different mythological representations over millions of years, but it’s one thing to stare at a centuries-old etching of a brightly winged creature in a museum and another to accept a CGI parrot as a maître d to meeting your maker. Yet this brisk, concise preamble allows you to settle into the notion that while this may seem initially absurd, it isn’t ludicrous. The Croatian filmmaker is setting the tone — or maybe she’s letting the orchestra settle in and tune up before the concert. You need to take this idea seriously before the symphony of grief, transference and acceptance starts in earnest. (The movie opened in New York and L.A. this weekend, and goes wide on June 14th.)

The title doesn’t refer to the most nondescript day of the week, by the way — Tuesday is the name of the 15-year-old young woman played by Lola Petticrew, who is in the final stages of a terminal illness. Her mother Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is not handling it well, to say the least. She’s reluctantly selling off her daughter’s belongings, blowing off work, trying to distract herself from the inevitable. When Death (voiced by Arinzé Kene, in a rasp that befits a dinged-up beast of existential burden) shows up at their household late one afternoon, Zora is napping on a public park bench; all graces have gone out the window.

Tuesday is not scared of this visitor. In fact, she tells the animal a story and shows it kindness, allowing the self-admittedly “filthy” bird to wash itself in their bathroom sink. She will go with him when her hour is up. But first, Tuesday wants to talk to her mom. Death, in a rare moment of mercy, grants her last request.

Lola Petticrew in ‘Tuesday.’


Once Zora meets this creature and rages, rages against the dying in his soon-to-be flight, Tuesday turns into something close to a three-hander — or rather, a two-hander with an extra set of talons. For a while, this trio play out each Kübler-Ross stage, with Mom throwing every excuse she can about the unfairness of it all and Tuesday telling her she needs to come to terms. The thing is, Death is not itself immune to injury. And in one of the more unexpected sequences in a film filled to the brim with sharp left turns, Zora seems to have conquered it. She finds that she may have given her daughter the one gift everyone wants yet is impossible to grant: more time. That soon proves to be an illusion. Because lowercase-D death is not just an everyday reality, it’s one of Mother Nature’s necessities. And something or someone must then fill that void left behind….

It’s at this point that Tuesday truly rolls the bones and gambles on viewers coming along for the full ride, at the risk of becoming insufferably twee or quirky to the point of facepalm. You will be asked to take in some images that may cause involuntary laughter and be forced to accept a mix of profundity and preposterousness, all while worrying that your heartstrings are perpetually under assault. The reason that this fantasy doesn’t collapse under the weight of both its own premise and its five-ton philosophical musings is partially because it’s able to translate Oniunas-Pusic’s oft-kilter, fanciful vibe of her short movies into something that can somehow sustain itself through a feature’s length. (See: her 2015 short The Beast, which also involves mothers, daughters and unwanted flying animals — in this case, a bat.) And it’s partially because a young actor like Petticrew is already wise enough to know she does not have to pander in a story about dying prematurely and saying goodbye. The story is already doing the heavy lifting, so she simply, gracefully does her part to show you Tuesday’s last days.


But the main reason that this unique take on the mourning after (and before) doesn’t inspire the potential rolling of eyes or gnashing of teeth is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s not alone in her endeavors — both her and Pettigrew establish a lovely, spiky rapport. Yet every time you feel like Tuesday begins tipping toward the maudlin or the borderline ridiculous, Louis-Dreyfus grounds the story and manages to add a wounding, wondrous emotional spin on things. Like her younger scene partner, the Seinfeld superstar doesn’t overplay anything, and as with her incredible work in last year’s You Hurt My Feelings, it isn’t that she’s jettisoning her comedic chops here so much as tapping into a different register. It’s a major performance in what sometimes risks feeling like a minor, late-’90s Sundance entry released a quarter of a century too late.

So yes,Tuesday makes a strong case for death as a natural, if not the most natural part of life. It makes an even stronger case, however, for Julia Louis-Dreyfus being one of the greatest actors working today. And after decades of watching her in sketch comedy and sitcoms, you feel like Louis-Dreyfus is only just now ready for you to reckon with the full range of her talent. Death becomes her. So does digging deep into previously uncharted territory. Let this be not an end, but a beginning.

Leave a Comment