I’ve been looking forward to Jason Reitman’s Tully for a while, now. Having directed such cult classics as Juno (that #ThrowbackThursday column is here), Young Adult, and my personal favorite Up in the Air, Reitman has a solid track record of thoughtful, relatable dramedies. The film is also written by Diablo Cody, who wrote both the previously mentioned Juno and Young Adult. And on top of that, star Charlize Theron has been on a roll, lately, and very few throw themselves as completely into a part as she does. So what wasn’t there to be looking forward to with Tully?
The story follows Theron’s Marlo, a mother of three who is at her wit’s end. While her oldest, Emmy (Maddie Dixon-Poirier), is pretty well-adjusted and doing fine, her middle child, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) suffers from an undiagnosed developmental disorder and her newborn daughter was unplanned. Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is of very little help and Marlo is coming to the realization that the family that is supposed to be a source of happiness and a feeling of accomplishment is instead filling her with frustration and regret. At the suggestion of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help Marlo to hopefully get some sleep and regain her metaphorical balance. As a bond develops between mother and nanny, Marlo discovers that life’s inspirations can sometimes come from the least-expected places.
Theron is great, as always. Not only did she gain fifty pounds for the role, but I was fully convinced that Theron – not just Marlo – hates her life. I wouldn’t ever consider Theron to be underrated, as I’m pretty sure everyone knows by now what a tremendous talent she is, but I do think it’s becoming a little easier to take her for granted, these days. She makes her job look easy, no matter what that job is. And she can do it all; whether she be a kickass action star such as in Mad Max: Fury Road or Atomic Blonde or an everyday person like us struggling with real world problems, Theron is going to deliver, every time, and Tully just adds to her impressive resume.
Starring as the title character, Tully features Mackenzie Davis’s highest-profile role, yet, and she will charm her way into the hearts of any viewer who gives the film a chance. In the hands of a lesser or otherwise miscast performer, Tully could come across as annoyingly young, exuberant, and self-confident. As we age, we feel as if we begin to lose the qualities that once made us special. That’s exactly how Marlo feels. Tully needs to become a source of energy, not resentment – both for the audience and for Marlo. The entire film hinges on it. And the wrong performance would have killed the film flat. But Davis nails it, bringing fun and good cheer to the proceedings and carrying the weight of the premise on her shoulders alone.
And the film certainly needed it. It takes a while – much longer than I expected – for Tully to arrive on the scene. Before we meet her, we get to know Marlo and her family, a process which really isn’t all that enjoyable. As I mentioned, nobody in the family is exactly enjoying life, which makes enjoying the family equally difficult. The first act of the film, as well-written and -produced as it is, was actually a difficult chore for me because absolutely none of the adults were in any way likable.
This is by design, of course, because when Tully finally makes her presence known, she has the same effect on the viewer as she does on Marlo. Tully is the breath of fresh air that we all need by that time and brings the lightness that Reitman and Cody are known for to bear. I’m not even certain that there were more than a couple of on-screen smiles before Tully arrives (and those were just for show), but Tully’s smile not only lights up the screen, but the lives of those around her, infusing them with a life force that they hadn’t felt in many years.
As the film progresses, the end game remains satisfyingly shrouded in mystery. Despite my own inner speculation, I never once had the sense that I knew where the film was going either narratively or regarding the burgeoning relationship between Marlo and Tully. And the ending came as a genuine surprise. I suppose that ending will rub some the wrong way, as it’s extremely unconventional for a film of this kind. But it also works and fits nicely into what the film establishes in the time leading up to it. But I promise that if you tell me you knew what was coming, I’m mentally marking you as a liar for life.
Tully is a film about learning to care for oneself before attempting to care for others. But it’s also a film about caring for others once you have yourself taken care of. We’re all in this together and we’re all important. Constantly putting others before yourself isn’t noble; it’s dangerous to both you and them. Reitman and Cody make the point that life is a game of give and take and that taking is sometimes the right thing to do. Overall, while I didn’t quite find Tully to be the funniest or most entertaining film from the Reitman/Cody duo, it might just be the most poignant and effective. And it’s definitely worth your money or your MoviePass.
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