The early scenes of Jason Reitman’s Tully are so convincing that they will create anxiety for the new parents in the audience. We observe Marlo (played by Charlize Theron) struggling to raise her troubled son, give attention to her older daughter, survive the final months of her third pregnancy and please Drew, her barely-there husband (played by Ron Livingston). There’s a montage depicting Marlo’s daily routine, as diaper changes, a screaming baby, family time, breast pump sessions and early morning baby wake-ups bleed into one another. Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (who collaborated on Juno and Young Adult) have tapped into something universal and deeply relatable. As the parent of a two-year old, I found the film’s first act to be as painfully nerve rattling and totally believable.
Marlo’s wealthy brother (played by Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a “night nanny” to assist her. When Marlo finally reaches her breaking point, she gives in and allows the young, beautiful and very odd Tully (played by radiant newcomer Mackenzie Davis) to watch her infant daughter while she sleeps through the night. Over time, the arrangement works wonders and Marlo begins to find herself again.
While Reitman’s celebrated but overrated Juno resonated greatly with audiences, he has yet to match the maturity and pathos of his Up in the Air. Still, he has a potent collaborator in Theron, whose performance in this and Young Adult are flawless. Once again, Theron transforms herself, gives in to the considerable demands of the role and allows the flaws and humanity of Marlo to be out in the open.
Cody, on the other hand, is the weak link in this latest collaboration; her screenplay begins with lived-in authenticity, makes crucial missteps at the midpoint and falls flat in the end. The mysterious nature of Davis’ enchanting but offbeat character gives her every scene a slight but distinct hint of suspense; we’re unsure of Tully, even as we like her. Where Cody takes the character is easy to spot and disheartening once everything is out in the open. I won’t hint at where the story goes but will express disappointment with the film’s conclusion and overall message.
Davis gives a stylish, clever performance that counters the very real places Theron taps into with her characterization. I admired so much of Tully but felt my heart sink during the crucial plot turns that don’t work and didn’t buy the sentiment in the closing scenes, either. While not a disaster like Reitman’s Kate Winslet/Josh Brolin cuddly hostage drama, Labor Day, this is an almost-was that could have soared after serious script revisions.
I liked so much of Tully and want to cut it a break for getting so much right in the early going. But the overall result and unsettled feeling it left me with make repeat viewings doubtful. Like Young Adult, this Reitman/Theron/Cody project has prickly, bitter humor. If only it weren’t undermined by contrivances and an ill-advised attempt to shake up and reconfigure the final act.
Tully captures the daily battles and humbling victories/losses of being a parent so persuasively, it won’t play like escapism or mere entertainment for anyone who can relate to it. Cody clearly wanted to cut deep into the realities of domestic life and create in Marlo a female lead character who is relatable and unusual in American movies. Theron’s unglamorous, had-it-up-to-here Marlo is a great role and another triumph for Theron. If only Cody had maintained the focus on harsh reality and not felt the need to show off and derail Marlo’s journey, and ours.