Theron's performance keeps Tully's warts and all portrayal of motherhood on course, even when the film's plot mechanics threaten to derail it.
The third collaboration for director Jason Reitman and Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody, Tully reflects how its creatives have matured in their worldview and storytelling over their years making films together. At the same time, as much as Reitman and Cody have grown as filmmakers over the past decade, Tully still suffers from some of the same problems that inflicted their earlier work. Fortunately, as was also the case with Young Adult (the pair's second movie), star Charlize Theron is the saving grace that prevents Tully from collapsing at the seams. Theron's performance keeps Tully's warts and all portrayal of motherhood on course, even when the film's plot mechanics threaten to derail it.
Theron stars as Marlo, a forty-something woman who is on her third (and, this time, unplanned) pregnancy with her husband Drew (Ron Livingston). While Marlo is stressed out enough taking care of two kids - especially her "quirky" son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) - and working a job in human resources, she's nevertheless uninterested when her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny to help with her newborn. However, once the new baby has arrived and Marlo finds herself at wit's end trying to keep up with everything, she finally breaks down and calls the nanny service number that Craig gave her.
Not long thereafter, a young nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at Marlo's doorstep one night, bright-eyed and ready to take care of her and her baby. Somewhat put off by Tully's optimism and new age outlook at first, Marlo eventually starts to bond with her unusual caretaker and finds herself able to enjoy life again in a way that she hasn't in a long time. As more and more time passes though, Marlo begins to realize that in many ways she has as much to teach Tully about self-care and loving herself as Tully has to teach her.
Building on Juno's offbeat teenage pregnancy story and Young Adult's darkly comedic examination of the bitter disillusionment that can come with growing up, Reitman and Cody's third film together dives headfirst into the realities of just how difficult (nay, savage) parenthood and specifically motherhood can be. Tully spends far more time showing the soul-draining monotony and sanity-tasking challenges of being a mother than explaining it with dialogue, allowing Theron's sunken eyes and bedraggled appearance to do most of the talking instead. Still, as frank as Tully can be in its portrayal of how newborn mothers are affected both physically and mentally by giving birth and caring around the clock for an infant, it never devolves into pure cynicism and remains empathetic in its portrait for most of its runtime (more on that later).
Reitman has thrived at pulling audiences into his characters' worlds in the past and he uses some of his familiar techniques to do the same for Marlo. The way Tully uses montage to illustrate the tediousness of Marlo's day to day life brings to mind Reitman's approach to documenting the painfully unvaried lives of "job termination assistants" in Up in the Air. Similarly, the scenes where Marlo's mind wanders restlessly in sleep resemble young Henry's turbulent adolescent dreams in Reitman's 2014 film Labor Day. Reitman doesn't necessarily advance his filmmaking style in Tully, but his methods are as refined as they have ever been. He's also more subtle here than he has sometimes been in the past, even as his efforts to juggle the wry humor and poignant drama of Cody's script wield uneven returns.
The heart of Cody's script comes almost entirely from the relationship between Marlo and Tully, which is refreshing in its own way. Their dynamic works thanks in no small part to the screen chemistry between Theron and Davis, who shine in their respective roles as the world-weary but caring mother and naive but intelligent nanny who strike up a genuinely touching friendship. The vast majority of the film focuses on Marlo and Tully's time together, to the point where it's almost as much a platonic love story about the pair as it is a rumination on motherhood. Downside is, this keeps the supporting players in Tully on the periphery and their big emotional moments (specifically, those involving Drew and Jonah) struggle to land as a direct result.
Whereas most of Tully's problems in its first two-thirds are surface level, the final act is where things get messy. Without getting into spoilers, it's worth noting that Tully's last third deals with postpartum health issues and has drawn criticism from real life maternal health advocates for it. (This isn't new territory for Cody; her Showtime TV series United States of Tara drew similar criticisms for its portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder.) Simply from a storytelling perspective, Tully's third act developments give the film's plot and themes more structure, but do so at the expense of its own narrative logic. The question of whether the film is insensitive or not in its portrayal of certain health concerns is certainly a valid one, for that reason.
On the whole, Tully is a solid rebound for Reitman after the critical and commercial disappointments of his last two films (Labor Day and Men, Women & Children) and offers further proof that he, Cody, and Theron bring out the best in one another. As much as Reitman and Cody have matured as storytellers since their Juno days, Tully also shows that there's room for more growth on their part. Those who loved Young Adult in particular will probably enjoy Tully the most, as will those moviegoers interested in seeing a film that wrestles with the truth about motherhood in a way that most non-genre movies aren't willing or able to do. It's not a must-see, but Tully is a nice alternative choice for those looking for something to see in a theater right now that doesn't feature Thanos and the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Tully is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 94 minutes long and is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
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