'Tully': Charlize Theron is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Marlo. Is. Worn. Out. The kind of tired that demands periods after every word. The type of exhaustion manifesting as a crippling psycho-physical zombie state.
Marlo is the protagonist of “Tully,” and easily among the most dynamic and engaging characters played by Charlize Theron - up there with feminist warrior Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (which won her an Oscar) and Mavis Gary, the author tragicomically divorced from reality in “Young Adult.” Like Mavis, Marlo was conceived by Oscar-winning “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody, and directed by Jason Reitman (who helmed “Juno,” as well as “Up in the Air”). To see this cinematic power trio back together is a treat; to see them deliver a smart and entertaining dark comedy for 75 minutes then fumble it at the end is disappointing.
Up to the climax, the film is an incisive and complex portrait of motherhood cloaked in the throes of deep depression. It opens on a hugely, uncomfortably pregnant Marlo. It wasn’t planned. She’s 40ish. The child will be her third with Drew (Ron Livingston), her overworked and well-meaning, but unexceptional husband. Their kindergartener son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is a handful, an anxious, sensitive kid described as “quirky” by officials at his school. The word “quirky” makes me itch just typing it, even quoting the dialogue. Imagine it being used to describe your child upon learning that he’s disruptive in class. Yuck. Yuck yuck yuck.
Marlo’s dispirit is prepartum, partum, postpartum. Every part of the partum. Her self-description is “an abandoned trash barge.” Her ridiculously moneyed brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to foot the bill for a “night nanny,” who will take care of the newborn during the wee hours so she can get some rest. She’s skeptical. Who wouldn’t be?
The big day comes. The beautiful birth of their daughter is accompanied by Marlo’s expression of defeat bordering on despair. Cue a montage of misery: routinely broken sleep, joyless breastfeeding, Lego blocks scattered underfoot, Drew being vaguely fatherly at best. The baby is typical in its demands; she’s not the problem here. Jonah’s principal suggests the boy should attend a different school, and Marlo cracks: “I’m sorry about my retarded son!” she yells, crashing the baby carrier on the door frame on the way out. The baby wails and wails and wails, and a long take shot from the passenger seat of her Honda provides Theron with a raw, real and deeply affecting moment.
So she calls the nanny. You would too. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a smiling, gentle godsend, an exquisite balance of practical and holistic. She arrives at 10 p.m., and by the time Marlo awakes, the baby is content, the toys are picked up, the dishes are clean, homemade cupcakes are freshly frosted for Jonah’s class. Cue a much more pleasant montage of Marlo playing outside with the kids, combing her hair, putting on a little makeup. Tully becomes Marlo’s confidant, setting up numerous opportunities for Cody to script thoughtful, insightful conversations about motherhood, sex, unfulfilled dreams. The most heartbreaking exchange is punctuated with Marlo’s insistence that “girls don’t heal,” a line delivered by Theron with a quietly devastating matter-of-fact tone sharply spiked with pain and resignation.
Maybe the scenario seems a little too perfect, but there’s no denying our involvement in the story and characters, our desire for Marlo to experience the type of happiness that has eluded her for so long. Reitman shows his ability to elicit rich performances from his cast, his emphasis on character - so tragically lost in his previous effort, 2014’s overly conceptual dud “Men, Women and Children - shaking hands perfectly with a smart screenplay.
Cody clearly aims to slash apart the condescending, cloying tropes about motherhood - in Marlo’s intonation, the idea that the baby is “such a blessing” is deployed with withering sarcasm. But the film never implies that Marlo doesn’t love her new daughter; there’s something far more complicated happening here. Maybe it’s depression, or the hypocrisy of the human condition, or the tangled political and personal struggles of modern womanhood. Odd, then, how “Tully” sacrifices that complexity for simplicity in its final moments.
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass
Director: Jason Reitman
Run time: 95 minutes
Photo courtesy Focus Features