Mavis is immediately identifiable as a character who’s a little stuck. She wakes up in her Hello Kitty tshirt, drinks a Diet Coke breakfast, watches a lot of bad reality TV when she should be working. Maybe her stunted growth is what makes her so successful; Mavis writes a young adult series and maybe she’s a little TOO good at putting herself into that head space.
Anyway, Mavis (Charlize Theron) has a tight deadline, so she does the rational thing and focuses all of her energy on obsessing over an email sent from the current wife of her ex-boyfriend, Buddy. It’s a baby announcement. They’ve just had a baby. Mavis assumes that Buddy’s miserable, trapped in their scuzzy hometown by a wife and now a kid. So she drives to said hometown to test her theory.
Mavis is kind of pathetic and kind of unlikable, and yet we’ve all been her, at least a little. She’s 37 but hasn’t let go of her past – perhaps the last time she felt like a whole, complete person. She peaked in high school: ugh. Gross. But the good news is, when she arrives in crap hometown, she hits a wall named Matt (Patton Oswalt). She doesn’t remember him from high school – she wouldn’t, she was popular, they didn’t exactly run in the same crowds – but he provides the little voice of reason that she clearly lacks. Not that she’s going to let a little thing like reason dissuade her; she reaches out to Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and to our communal chagrin but not surprise, he responds. To his ex girlfriend. Who I’m pretty sure he knows is trouble. While he’s dealing with his wife’s breast milk.
Anyway, Charlize Theron is disturbingly good in this. Disturbingly. Even when Mavis is being so hateful we can hardly keep looking at the screen, Theron manages the all-important drop of humanity that keeps us from throwing in the towel. She finds and celebrates Mavis’ flaws. Without her, this movie could have come off as seriously bitter. Young Adult is dark and dour, but director Jason Reitman plays to Theron’s strengths and pulls off a serious mood.
Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.
Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).
When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.
I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.
I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).
Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.
Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the team who brought you Juno and Young Adult, have at it again, taking aim at motherhood.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is struggling to keep up with her two young kids – sweet Sarah, who’s 8, has birthday parties and soccer practice to get to, and Jonah, who’s 4, has special needs and quirks that are inadequately addressed but in constant demand of attention. Marlo hasn’t quite pulled her hair out yet, not all of it, but baby #3 arrives quite quickly into the movie, and that’s when things fall apart. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed, she’s either moving through life like a zombie, or she’s dashing around like a crazy person. She feels like she’s failing her kids and her husband and her own personhood, and it’s only in her lowest low that she finally consents to allow a night nurse hired by her wealthy brother to help out. And as soon as Tully arrives, life is transformed. I have several things to say about this movie:
I sat and watched it in the middle of the day, in a theatre with maybe 8 other people in it. There was a pair of old ladies behind me who of course could not shut their mouths for the life of them. One lady was always about 20 seconds behind, as if she was watching the movie on her very own special mental delay. The movie’s not exactly laugh out loud funny, but about 20 seconds after the rest of us had given a low chuckle, she would proclaim “Ha ha, that’s funny.” Except. Except this one joke that was heavily featured in the film’s promotion, in which the young night nurse Tully says that “You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole.” To which Marlo replies “No one’s treated my hole in a really long time.” And then the old lady behind me chimes in “Or mine!” – and you know what, Olga? (I bet her name was Olga) No one needs to hear about your hole, and I’m frankly finding it hard to imagine right about now that you’re capable of keeping any of them closed.
Everyone’s talking about this “raw” and “honest” take on motherhood, and I think a lot of moms identified with the exhausted character they saw in the trailer. Motherhood is not always rosy. Asking for help might be sanity saving (though, hello, night nurses are for the privileged, and help isn’t always easy to come by, or easy to ask for). But mother-martyrdom has been done to death, so to me, the more interesting thing in this movie is how fatherhood is portrayed. Marlo’s husband hardly contributes to the parenting and she doesn’t even seem to resent him for it. He has a life outside the house, and he travels extensively, but even when he’s home he’s hardly helping. This is not my experience of 2018 dads, and I realize that breastfeeding will always keep things unequal, but Marlo’s husband is such a passive, uninvolved father the portrayal seemed dated. And if he really is this worthless, then Marlo needs to find her voice and demand better for herself and her family. But in fact, he gets away with it. The film never condemns him. That felt off to me.
SPOILERS ahead, darlings. The truth is, for all the film’s “honesty” we find out that the magical night nurse really is too good to be true. Tully is an imaginary friend, perhaps even a younger Marlo. So while postpartum depression is hinted at if not named, this hallucination is in fact indicative of a psychotic break. Postpartum psychosis is rare but very serious, and people have mixed feelings about her lack of diagnosis and lack of treatment seen on screen. All new mothers struggle. All of them. Being responsible for the survival of a completely helpless newborn is all-consuming. And postnatal episodes of depression can hit 10-15% of new mothers, though many are still reluctant to admit to it. Does the film do a disservice in not naming this mental illness? Does the viewer learn anything? In the movie, Tully is eventually dismissed, like Mary Poppins, but that’s not how psychosis works, and we can’t help but be afraid for Marlo as she returns home to a life unchanged, an illness untreated, and a husband who’s still very much in the dark about everything.
EVEN MORE SPOILERS. The movie lost its grip on me when it started making some weird choices on Marlo’s behalf. But once it’s revealed that night nurse Tully is actually a younger Marlo swooping in to save her flailing middle-aged self, those scenes start to make more sense. You kind of wish you could revisit them with your new knowledge in order to understand them for their truth and not their illusion. So this film will absolutely require a second viewing (though not in theatres, for fear of more old lady TMI). In a way, Marlo’s younger self is sort of her super hero, but they have things to learn from each other. Marlo envies Tully’s carefree life, her sexual escapades, her world of possibilities. But looking back, I’m struck by a line that didn’t mean as much at the time. Tully says “You’re convinced you’re this failure, but you actually made your biggest dream come true.” And if Tully really is a younger Marlo, then this isn’t empty reassurance but a reminder that motherhood was once her ambition.
Tully is a complex movie that needs and wants digesting. I believe it respects motherhood if not mental illness, and I have complicated feelings about that. But Charlize Theron is fearless as Marlo, a woman who has lost herself but thanks to Charlize always feels present nonetheless. Theron and Mackenzie Davis (Tully) have kinetic, intense chemistry and their scenes together add dimensionality to Hollywood’s concept not just of motherhood but of womanhood, femininity, and identity. Theron is self-assured; she uses her physicality in a way we haven’t seen from her before. She is daring and strong and I felt protective of her.
This movie was so quiet I didn’t even feel comfortable eating my snack, despite my stomach eating itself in desperation – it sort of mimicked the lethargy, the sleepwalking feel that Marlo stumbles around in. But whatever hell Marlo is experiencing, she’s taking care of her kids. Motherhood isn’t sacred in this movie, it’s not revered, but it’s honoured and esteemed and it’s clear they want to get it right.
Thursday Movie Picks, sponsored as ever by Wandering Through the Shelves, is brought to us this week by the letter W – for movies set in the workplace.
Office gossip can be addictive. Most people wind up spending most of their time talking about work when they spend time with their colleagues outside the office. Actually, three of the Assholes work in the same place and- when we’re not arguing about movies we’re often reminiscing (or ranting) about work. Even people who claim to hate their job tend to find the comedy and drama of any workday pretty interesting. All you need to do is capture that environment in a relatable way and you’ve got a pretty good movie.
The Apartment (1960)- This has been one of my most significant Blind Spots until this week and it was worth the wait. Jack Lemmon plays an accountant at a big firm who’s just trying to get noticed. Once his superiors find out that he has a modest but nice apartment conveniently located on the Upper West Side, he becomes their go-to guy as they start borrowing his key so they can discreetly cheat on their wives. Director Billy Wilder has a lot to say about the compromises people make in the name of ambition and manages to make a movie that is still funny after all these years while he’s saying it. Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are as charming as can be too.
Office Space (1999)- Turning an animated short into a live action feature-length film could have been a disaster but Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge turned any old boring day into the office into one of the funniest comedies of the 90s. Re-watching it this week, I laughed loudest when Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh- in an effort to pacify the troops- announces that Friday will be Hawaiian Shirt Day. Around our office, they charge us two dollars to wear jeans on Friday. I couldn’t help feeling bad for poor old Milton though.
Margin Call (2011)- Yet another movie that I’m thankful to Wanderer for giving me an excuse to finally check out this week. Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, and Kevin Spacey (making my list two weeks in a row) play investment bankers who see the writing on the wall leading up to the 2008 Financial crisis and sit around wondering what to do about it. Director J. C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) knows how to set the mood and the performances are all stellar.
Up In The Air – Poor Ryan Bingham is so afraid of real life that he’s made sure his job keeps him in constant motion. His office may be at a cruising altitude of 32 000 feet but he spends a lot of time visiting other people’s workplaces to tell them they’re no longer employed. This is such a tough job that cash-strapped businesses are still willing to pay big bucks during a recession for him to do it in their place. He sees offices at their very worst, smells the fear and senses the instability, and is the receptacle for sometimes 20 years’ worth of pain and frustration. Our identities can be so wrapped up in our work, and in many ways, Ryan (George Clooney) is the prime example of this. Director Jason Reitman bravely tackles those creeping workplace notions of downsizing and obsolescence and asks some tough questions of the aging American workforce.
The Social Network – I love how you see the growth of the company here, the “offices” originally in a Harvard dorm room, and then graduating quite quickly to the impressive work space that was eventually needed. The movie recounts a very modern invention (hello, Facebook) but its workplace themes are as old as the first profession – loyalty, jealousy, theft, power, the complicated ownership of ideas. Whether friends or enemies, friended or unfriended, colleagues or competition, this project is always work, and everybody wants to get paid.
Brokeback Mountain – The classic office romance. They meet by the photocopier, lock eyes over the on, thwater cooler, exchange business cards in the elevator…or, you know, not. Don’t you wish your office looked like this? The scenery is breathtaking but make no mistake: these two cowboys meet at work, doing a job that’s not altogether welcoming to “their kind.” When their boss gets an inkling of what’s going on, the work dries up and the two spend the rest of their lives stealing secret moments and steeling themselves with memories of the best job they ever had.
Bonus pick: Monsters, Inc. Sully and Mike are about as close as two colleagues can be. Mike is the more ambitious of the two, but it’s Sully’s talent and skill that make them so successful. The workplace is originally competitive, and tinged with the fear of contamination (they do bio-hazardous work with children). It may be a cartoon about fuzzy monsters, but any joke about paperwork in triplicate is likely to land huge with adult audiences.
Since Matt took Office Space and Jay took Up in the Air, I am sticking to familiar territory and making my section an all-lawyer-movie workplace bonanza!
Philadelphia – a great movie about a lawyer getting kicked out of his workplace, and then going to his other workplace, the court, to try to make things right. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington absolutely own this movie. I actually did not see this until last year and I should have seen it way sooner, because it’s excellent.
A Few Good Men – I saw this in theatres, I owned it on VHS, I own it on DVD, and one of my roommates in university recited the “You can’t handle the truth!” speech every time he had more than three drinks. And I could watch it again tomorrow. There are so many good lines and so many good characters in here that it remains enjoyable to this day. And again there are a few workplaces in here, namely the courts and the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
The Firm – Tom Cruise is probably the best lawyer ever, at least if you go by his on-screen performances. He almost got Dawson and Downey freed and in the Firm he somehow outmaneuvers a whole team of crooked lawyers and the mob while still adhering to his strict ethical code. Plus he does a lot of really fast running in the Firm which is always the best part of any Tom Cruise performance. This movie feels really long, because it is, but it’s still a good watch.
Anyone had an office love? Office hook up? Office BFFs?
Just when you thought Jason Reitman could do no wrong, along comes Men, Women & Children, 2014’s movie we loved to hate.
But why did critics pan it and audiences avoid it? It’s not really an objectionable premise: a bunch of teenage kids, and their square parents, realize that the internet is colouring and changing their interactions and relationships on every level. It’s got a big cast of talented people. But it all just feels so sad. So infinitely sad.
The characters are all connected but the movie feels disconnected. As a necessity, everyone’s reacting to their screens and not to each other. The internet’s destroying us! – not exactly an original idea – but Reitman goes at it ambitiously, and vehemently.
For a script about technology, which is rooted firmly in the now, from a director who’s usually fairly with-it (witty teenage abortion with Juno, recession fallout in Up in the Air), this movie feels awfully stodgy and seems to miss the point. Plus, every single scenario, each character in the movie, exists not to tell a story but to tell a cautionary tale, one that will bash you over the head with its obviousness.
But the biggest crime that Reitman commits is that he fails to see that all of this internet-is-evil proof on offer in this film actually makes the opposite case. Eating disorders predate cellphones. Cheating on your spouse came before the internet. Exploiting children? Adolescent heartbreak? Parents worrying about teenagers? All very possible even without the help or the hindrance of technology. The weird thing about this movie is that the greatest evil seems to be when technology’s in the hands of the parents, not the kids. They’re the ones making the biggest mistakes, and shouldn’t they be the ones to know better?
Jason Reitman took a big swing here, but he missed by a mile.