(On Cable TV, January 2019) As a parent who just got out of the first few tough years, there’s an innate relatability to Tully’s phantasmagorical premise that rings true—given the sleep deprivation during a baby’s first years, I’m not sure that any parent is actually totally sane during that period and this film runs with the premise. Charlize Theron adds another impressive notch to her multidimensional screen persona by playing an overworked, super-stressed mother of three, with Mackenzie Davis in a strong supporting role and Ron Livingston to tie the narrative threads together. As a portrait of parenthood, Tully is more ruthlessly honest than most other movies—there’s little idealization going on here, and we’re miles away from shiny mommy blogging. There’s a nice balance between domestic details and frustration and the more outlandish flights of fancy that the story requires. Reuniting with scribe Diablo Cody (herself a mother of three), director Jason Reitman doesn’t try to recapture Juno’s motormouth wit but wisely stays grounded given the third-act twists. Going closer to spoilers, I remain as dumbfounded as anyone as to the popularity of the “Fight Club in another setting” premise (taking over from “Die Hard in another setting”) as shared by Tully and near-contemporary Adrift—it’s a narrative strategy build on deceit and now-cheap revelations, and I’m not sure it’s a subgenre that will age well. Still, I found a lot to relate to in Tully’s sleep-deprived fantasies and can’t stay mad for long at the plot cheats that it needs in order to justify itself.
(In theaters, December 2009) Hollywood is so often geared to kids, teens and family that film made for an adult audience are now rare enough to be remarkable. So it is that this tale of a professional downsizer confronting professional distress and personal attachment is perhaps more enjoyable for its change of pace than for what it actually delivers. George Clooney is splendid as a protagonist who comes to reconsider a lifetime of non-attachment, and he has the good fortune of playing against two actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who do just as well in their own roles: The best scene of the film is a simple three-way conversation in a hotel lobby. The script itself (which bears only a passing similarity to Walter Kirn’s original novel) seems to be exactly in tune with the times, in-between massive layoffs and widespread hatred of commercial airlines. Many of the film’s individual moments are oddly amusing, the peek at the life on an ultra-frequent-traveler is interesting and there are clear echoes of Juno in the off-kilter structure of writer/director Jason Reitman’s script. (Not to mention much of Thank you for Smoking in its cynical premise.) But there also seems to be an upper limit to Up in the Air’s effectiveness, and the lacklustre third act has something to do with it: After a lengthy detour in Wisconsin, the script more or less goes back to business but studiously avoids wrapping up its threads. Writer/director Jason Reitman would rather drag things on long enough to diffuse the impact of a more definitive ending, then ends up apparently one of two scenes too early. Sure, the point is informed character non-growth –which is gutsy enough at a time where “protagonist learns a lesson” is ingrained in Screenwriting 101. But the ending also deflates some of the film’s prevailing charm… leaving viewers, well, up in the air. Sometimes, even achieving one’s objective is criticism enough.