Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston
During one of the many quietly perfect scenes in Lost In Translation, Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte and Bill Murray’s Bob lie side-by-side on a hotel bed at the end of a long night of partying. Barriers down, Bob talks wistfully about parenthood. “Your life, as you know it… is gone,” he tells her.
Looking into the vacant eyes of Marlo (Charlize Theron) in Tully, one gets the impression that her sense of self has been obliterated several times over. We join her and husband Drew (Ron Livingston) on the eve of the birth of their third child. While Drew largely eschews responsibility – an absentee dad in his own home – motherhood has come to define Marlo. Young Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) appears to be on the spectrum for autism – infuriatingly described by everyone as “quirky” – and the constant barrage of neediness from her children has worn Marlo to breaking point.
Sprog no. 3 enters the world and extreme fatigue sets in. Tully sees director Jason Reitman working from the pen of Diablo Cody once again. A little over ten years ago they struck gold with sleeper-hit Juno, but the presence of Theron should point viewers toward the acid-tongued, darker edge of their later (and better) collaboration Young Adult. Though Tully skirts with the twee lightness of the mid-naughties indie dramedy, it’s also quite ready to drop the facade and depict parenthood as a total fucking nightmare.
It is almost too effective in this regard, successfully painting Marlo’s life as unending hell, all the more cruel for her husband’s benevolent obliviousness. Perhaps that’s a telling trait of modern attitudes, in which we all feel put-upon, even by (or especially by) those that love and depend on us. In any event, Cody’s script is eager to take the gloss from motherhood and with little in the way of narrative drive at this stage, the film smothers us in Marlo’s misery. Theron has proven herself over and over, so it’s no surprise that she takes to the role like gangbusters. It’s yet another feather in her cap. Of course she’s great in this. But its a little while before Tully is injected with any source of warmth.
Enter the magnificent Mackenzie Davis. Davis is kind of magical, as she has been in the likes of Always Shine and Black Mirror highlight San Junipero. She brings that same magnetic energy to Tully, arriving at the end of the first act as the titular night nanny; a veritable saviour for the shattered Marlo.
Marlo’s first take is that of suspicion, as Tully spouts the kind of inspirational truisms you’d most commonly associate with faux-homemade greetings cards. When Drew asks what she’s like, Marlo goes with, “…weird.” But Tully comes to remind Marlo of her younger, more optimistic self, and as the two bond – and as Marlo is allowed the opportunity to recharge – so the film starts to float. Tully’s upbeat nature proves infectious, and an experience that initially seemed wearying receives a welcome lift.
The seeming lack of narrative thrust no longer seems to matter. This is a two-handed character piece, and the relationship between the two women is satisfying enough. Out of the doldrums, a breezily enjoyable movie about rediscovering yourself emerges.
Which makes the final act all the more frustrating. There’s plenty of foreshadowing of what’s to come (see a conspicuous and awkwardly recurring mermaid motif), but the movie’s own growing optimism gets you hoping that you’re wrong. It can’t be… Such a thing would clearly be the mechanic of a lesser movie… right?
Wrong. Having fought very hard to get you on its side – and having won – Tully then squanders all that work with a wholly unwelcome about-turn. It feels cheap instead of clever and goes some way to devaluing the characters in the process. Come the credits its difficult not to feel baffled. Not about what happened; that’s been made perfectly clear. It’s more a sense of residual confusion over what possessed Cody and Reitman to proceed which such a trite and clunky narrative southpaw.
Tully simply deserved better. It suggests a misguided lack of confidence. Post-natal depression is a moving and interesting topic to explore. The idea of the night nanny, of applying that dynamic to this household is enough to sustain a film. The middle act provides ample proof that these ideas can be mined for dramatic richness. They don’t require bolstering with eleventh hour surprises of the kind evidenced here; choices which ultimately rob the movie of a great deal of integrity.
I’m a huge fan of what both actors have presented. Theron and Davis are fantastic. But the frustration incurred leaves a dark shadow over the picture as a whole. Looking back on it, Tully quickly comes to seem like an incredibly disjointed picture, tonally all over the place and broken by some fundamental bad decisions. With a rocky start and a truly terrible end, the precious peaks in the middle start to feel awfully outnumbered.