FILM REVIEW – TULLY. With Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Michael Patrick Lane. Written by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. 96 minutes.
Although not yet a critic’s darling, Jason Reitman is quietly putting together an impressive body of work, including “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air.” His latest film, TULLY, is his third collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody (after “Juno” and “Young Adult”). Where Reitman seems fascinated by people who think they have the world figured out only to discover that they don’t, Cody centers her stories on female characters learning that life doesn’t always turn out as they expected.
Marlo (Charlize Theron in her second outing with Reitman) is a mother at the end of her rope. She already has two children and is about to deliver her third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) loves her and their children, but his job requires travel which means a lot of the burden of parenting is on her. Her post-partum depression is extending into her everyday life. That’s when her successful brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to hire a “night nanny” for her, someone who would come in each evening to take care of the baby and give Marlo some breathing space (in between breastfeedings).
Once the main story gets underway, the focus is on the relationship between Marlo and Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nanny. Tully is competent and on top of things and starts giving Marlo advice about everything from parenting to her sex life with Drew. She’s wise beyond her years, and Marlo isn’t sure if she should be happy about Tully’s involvement in her life or resentful that the younger woman seems more together than Marlo is.
The result is a film about motherhood that’s both comic and dramatic, which may play best with viewers old enough to be parents themselves. It goes where few films about parenthood go, acknowledging that you can love your kids and still feel that you’re in over your head and you might have been better off never having children in the first place. Drew even acknowledges these feelings to Marlo before adding that while he may have them he doesn’t act on them.
Meanwhile, Tully gets Marlo to explore not only her feelings and what her goals were when she was younger, but whether she wants to check out the road not taken. It’s all leading to a payoff that some may find contrived unless you get that the film isn’t to be taken literally. It’s a meditation on women in early midlife (or late youth) wondering if they’ve somehow done things wrong.
The film turns on the performances by Theron and Davis. Theron, after kicking ass in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Fate of the Furious,” and “Atomic Blonde,” reminds us that she’s an actress and not merely an action star. Her Marlo is a good person who feels things spinning out of control and doesn’t know if she has what it takes to handle it. As Tully, Davis avoids being the annoying version of what her character might have been by not coming across as a know-it-all, even if Tully is exactly the person Marlo needs to get back on track.
“Tully” is a small film with a big message, one that seems appropriate to release now with Mother’s Day just a week away.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.