A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2018

TULLY  jjj

2018, R, 96 mins.


Charlize Theron as Marlo  /  Mackenzie Davis as Tully  /  Mark Duplass as Craig  /  Ron Livingston as Drew  /  Colleen Wheeler as Dr. Smythe  /  Elaine Tan as Elyse  /  Maddie Dixon-Poirier as Emmy  /  Asher Miles Fallica as Jonah  /  Lia Frankland as Sarah  /  Bella Star Choy as Greta  

Directed by Jason Reitman  /  Written by Diablo Cody





Being a mother is a wonderful, life altering responsibility.  

It's also tortuously difficult and can push the best of women to the point of complete physical and mental implosion. 

I've seen so many countless films in my days about what it means to be a life giver, but so very few unflinchingly capture the worst aspects of being one in quite the same manner as Jason Reitman's TULLY, which delves into the whirlwind of contradictions that typifies the modern parental experience.  Most dramas and/or comedies seem to pathetically gloss over the more troublesome dilemmas that maternal figures face while raising children for the purposes of artificial feel-good sentiment, but Reitman has none of it here.  TULLY embodies, better than most and with a deft blend of dark comedy and soulful drama, the sheer levels of exhaustion of motherhood in sometimes brutal detail.  There's a ruthless level of honesty on display here, which helps elevate TULLY above some of its creative missteps (more on that in a bit). 

That, and the film represents yet another successful marriage of Reitman with Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (who penned the director's best film in JUNO), not to mention that this marks the second collaboration between Reitman, Cody, and star Charlize Theron, coming after 2011's terribly underrated YOUNG ADULT.  The one thing that really stuck with me about YOUNG ADULT was how it chronicled the slow burning train wreck that was the main character's life, a poor and deluded soul that was stuck in a self damaging cycle of arrested development.  That film pulled no punches, and in a similar way, TULLY isn't afraid in the slightest in showing its lead character in a somewhat dislikeable light.  The mom in question here isn't a beacon of happiness and endless positivity; she seems, more often than not, like a completely broken down women whose life has kind of passed her buy while assuming the larger role of being a parent.  Having a baby is a blessing, to be sure, but it's also an unforgiving and never-ending cycle of submitting yourself to the needs of your children.  The fact that TULLY reflects this with a cunning amalgam of humor and pathos - as well as Cody's characteristic snarkiness and edge - is what allows it to be so thoroughly transfixing, especially in the earlier stages. 



Make no mistake about it, though, this is Theron's film through and through.  She's been known for being a real chameleon as an actress, especially for her legendary physical transformation that she made for her Oscar winning performance in MONSTER.  In TULLY she has arguably altered her body just as much for her role Marlo, a mother of two that is on the verge of giving birth to her third.  Her entire existence revolves around caring for her very needy children in 8-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and 5-year-old Jonah (Asher Mile Fallicia), the latter who seems to have some form of crippling autism that makes him a rather large handful both at home and at school.  Marlo's husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is a well meaning and caring soul, but he's also a somewhat absentee father due to working long hours.  When he does make it home for the day he exchanges a few words with Marlo, retires to bed, plays video games, and falls asleep.   

Now, Theron's fanatical dedication to performance craft comes not during her character's pregnancy (most actresses can easily wear body appliances to sell that illusion), but rather after Marlo gives birth to her new baby.  There's absolutely no glamorizing this woman in her post-labor life.  She's still rotund (at one point when she takes her shirt off her daughter hilariously and heartbreakingly asks what happened to her body) and looks like she's about to collapse at any moment (Theron gained what appears to be an unhealthy amount of weight to sell the look of a woman days after giving birth).  Her newborn is the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for Marlo, mostly because she looks so tired, so overworked, and so depressed that she's got one foot in the psyche ward.  Her well meaning, but rich and yuppie brother (Jay Duplass) offers her a "way out" in the form of a nocturnal paid nanny - one of the best he knows that will show up and look after her baby during the night so she can rest and sleep.  When Tully the "night nanny" shows up (Mackenzie Davis), Marlo finds her life making many weird, yet fulfilling, changes for the better. 

Something seems...shall we say...just too damn perfect about Tully right from the get-go.  She seems impossibly warm hearted, bright minded, knowledgeable, and adept at her job considering what her relatively young age and tank top wearing hippie vibe would let on.  Initially and predictably, Marlo seems unwilling to turn her baby over to the stranger, but as her guard breaks down and she allows Tully into their lives it becomes clear that Tully will look after literally every need that Marlo has, including even sparking the lost sexual drive of her tunnel versioned husband, who seems more disinterested in having intercourse with his wife with each new day.  The more Tully becomes entrenched as Marlo's nanny and surrogate caregiver the more relaxed and comfortable the latter becomes, to the point where she gradually becomes more at ease with the daily grind motherhood.  And Tully and Marlo soon become very close and intimate confidants during this time, which takes some decidedly strange detours in the film's final act. 

One of the singular pleasures of watching TULLY is to see the emotional thawing of Marlo as a woman that begins the film at the precipice of a total mental breakdown - which negatively affects her ties with her kids, their teachers, and her husband - and into a more self-actualized being that grows to learn how to accept her role and relish it.  Yet, TULLY, as mentioned, shows no hesitation with portraying the early warts and all phase of her motherhood, and the film relays how she's pitifully holding on for deal life by her fingertips without much of a safety net.  Reitman and Cody are clearly trying to shape Marlo has a deeply flawed being that's struggling with her identity and constant sense of sacrifice.  They show her life as a frequently isolating endeavor that's oftentimes more damaging than rewarding.  Reitman emphasizes this in a brilliantly repetitive visual montage showing a non-stop and unending cycle of breast milk pumping, babies crying in the middle of the night, feeding and diaper changes at wee hours of the morning, followed by more crying...more feeding...more diaper changes...more breast milk pumping...and so on and so on.  Cody, a mother herself, is clearly penning a deeply personal film here as well as showing how parenthood is typified by a frighteningly intimidating daily grind.  The ultimate message here, I think, is about how unhealthy a mother can become if she fails to care for herself while caring for her kids. 

There are times when Marlo is a figure to be pitied...and sometimes a figure to be spited.  She says and does things during the course of the film that make her an easy target of hate, but Cody doesn't demonize this woman because of her sometimes toxic behavior, but rather asks audiences to get inside her fragile headspace to more fully understand what makes her tick.  Theron's bravura performance thoroughly sells this woman's fatigue, sense of loneliness, and self-despair.  There's rarely a moment throughout TULLY when Theron is not utterly credible as a new mother that looks like she's about to pass out at any given moment.  She's paired extremely well by the effervescent Davis, who serves as a nice foil to Marlo in terms of being a twentysomething Mary Poppins that's disarmingly down to earth, compassionate, wise, and caring.  Within the first few minutes of being introduced to Tully you fully understand why any woman would allow her to tend to the full needs of their newborn; she just radiates positive and healthy energy. 

Something very peculiar happens halfway through TULLY.  The more I watched it and the longer it progressed the more I began scrutinizing Tully as a character.  She's given virtually no embellishment outside of personality quirks.  We learn nothing about her past, who she is, or where she came from before serving as Marlo's nanny.  Also, she seems almost inexcusably...well...flawless as a character, without any really negative attributes rearing their ugly heads.  There's nothing Tully can't do, and she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything.  She simply never feels like a real woman from the beginning, despite being so bubbly and charming, which makes it hard to hate her.  And because she seems so unfeasibly faultless throughout the story it almost telegraphs a narrative choice made in the final sections of the film, which involves a plot twist that's superficially surprising at first, but then seems preordained by the film's handling of her character.   After you start unraveling some of the film's layers, this bait and switch climax seems more obvious than unexpected.    

That's too bad, because two thirds of TULLY are so unquestionably enthralling and pack such an unapologetically visceral punch as a grounded drama that the manner it all unwinds in the final moments are kind of disappointment.  I admired the audacity of Reitman's and Cody's storytelling choices here, but nevertheless don't think they entirely work.  I also feel that TULLY is a tad too short for its own good and definitely could have benefited from more than 90-plus minutes to flesh out its story, leaving the resulting film feeling oddly unfinished and rushing towards closure.  But I'm going to recommend based on the inherent power of Theron's performance, who shows her once again - on top of her work in YOUNG ADULT - that she absolutely has no qualms about throwing movie star vanity to the wind.  Plus, when watching TULLY and, say, last year's ATOMIC BLONDE just remind yourself that this is indeed the same actress in both.  It's pretty staggering to consider in retrospect.   

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