Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After the film run of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman was flying high, having cracked the code to the contemporary American dramedy. Yet that run of successes would come to a screeching halt with the competent but underperforming Young Adult, followed by the bizarre Labor Day, and the oddly reactionary Men, Women & Children. Reitman has now gone back to the basics for his newest film, Tully, reuniting with screenwriter Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron. It’s his first movie in a long time that feels like it’s about real people with real problems, even if a third act revelation threatens to topple the film.
Theron is Marlo, an overworked mother just barely keeping her family afloat. She’s the mother of a fairly normal daughter, as well as a son with some kind of developmental disorder. (It’s on the autism spectrum, but Cody strangely chooses to never use that term.) The boy is overwhelmed by everyday sensory input, to the point that the sound of a flushing toilet sends him into hysterics. Tully opens with Marlo taking a soft bristled brush over his whole body, as if he were a horse. Reitman isn’t known for a particularly strong visual sense, but he and cinematographer Eric Steelberg shoot the scene in a lovely golden afternoon light, with tiny dust flecks dancing in the sunbeams. It’s a beautiful scene that signals one of the last peaceful moments Marlo will have for a long time.
Marlo is nearing the end of a pregnancy that she’s not prepared for. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), mostly disengages from maintaining the house. He swoops in after work to eat the dinner his wife cooked for him and play with his children in the house she cleaned for him, before retiring to the bedroom to play videogames. His routine doesn’t waver a bit when the baby finally arrives.
Drew and Marlo live in what might be a starter home for the more upwardly mobile, like her brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Craig’s wealth is the only thing keeping her children at an expensive private school (he made a sizeable donation), and now he wants to pay for a night nanny to help Marlo get a little sleep. Although initially resistant about having a stranger care for her baby, she eventually caves and gives the nanny a call.
The eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a revitalizing force. While Marlo gets some sleep, she cleans the house, cares for the baby, and even bakes cupcakes. Marlo actually looks forward to the liminal periods with Tully before retiring for the night. Davis is charming and knowing in these scenes, although her character mostly remains a mystery. There are hints of a laissez-faire approach to romance and new age-y parenting beliefs that threaten to turn her into a strangely maternal, manic pixie-dream girl, but Davis tones the more obnoxious elements down enough to avoid that. Although Tully begins as little more than a helpful force that drops in when the situation is most dire, she and Marlo begin to develop a stronger bond. Marlo sees herself in the younger woman, although she doesn’t quite understand just how alike they really are.
Theron is the rare actor who can make a role seem effortless, as if she’s really just playing herself, no matter how disparate the roles.
Tully’s approach to depicting motherhood veers toward the naturalistic without ever resorting to histrionics. Sure, Marlo has at least one shouting fit in a parking lot, but her struggles with a new baby and a child with a developmental disorder mirror the same struggles that plenty of other parents have faced. Many will wonder why she would ever want to have another child after the struggle she faces with her first two. It’s a fair question, but Tully is imbued with a faint sense of optimism; even at her darkest moments, Marlo thinks that things will eventually work out.
Theron has one of her strongest roles ever in Tully. She walks a delicate tightrope; becoming too stressed or flustered would turn Tully into a horror story about motherhood, but affecting too much of a cool, arch demeanor would destroy the emotional stakes of the role. She the rare actor who can make a role seem effortless, as if she’s really just playing herself, no matter how disparate the character. That feigned effortlessness also included gaining 50 pounds. (For comparison, Robert De Niro gained 70 pounds for the final stages of Raging Bull.) These kinds of physical transformations don’t make or break a film, but they do add welcome veracity. In Theron’s case, it also sets up one of Tully’s funniest moments when Marlo’s shirt is unexpectedly soiled, so she pulls it off and sits at the dinner table in nothing but pants and a bra, prompting her daughter to inquire, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?”
For Tully’s first three-quarters, Reitman and Cody make a sensitive and poignant film about the struggles of parenting. In that final section, though, there’s a twist that threatens to sabotage all that came before. The details shouldn’t be revealed, but the case for that particular plot development is weak. It literalizes what Cody’s script had previously symbolized so effectively, and though the film eventually regains its footing and sticks the landing, one can’t help but pine for a cut that elides the needless twist.
Thanks to the unnecessary ending, Reitman hasn’t completed rehabilitated his career with Tully, but he’s at least suggested the possibility of a new phase, one that features neither the cynicism of his early work nor the confused sincerity of his recent films. He’s a director who lives or dies based on his actors and screenwriters, but he gets lucky with Tully.