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Tully (2018)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not-So-Young Adult"
4 stars

“Tully” marks the reunion of director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron, coming together for the first time since 2011’s “Young Adult.” Considering how that film was not exactly a commercial success, this may not sound like a big deal to many of you but as someone who believes that bleak and bruising comedy-drama to be one of the great unsung movies of the decade—the kind of film that the great Billy Wilder might have made once upon a time—I went into the screening with the kind of over-the-top sense of anticipation that many felt as they walked into “Avengers: Infinity War.” (In fact, in one of those odd moments of cultural serendipity, I wound up seeing it immediately after sitting through that nonsense.) Although undeniably uneven in places and not nearly as good as their previous collaboration, “Tully” is nevertheless a film that marks a welcome return to for both Reitman and Cody, whose recent efforts have consisted largely of misfires and provides Theron with the best role that she has had since “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Granted, there are a couple of elements that are likely to throw a lot of viewers off-balance but those who are able to handle them properly should find themselves succumbing to the strange charms of this odd duck of a film.

Theron plays Marlo, a woman who feels as if she fell asleep one night in her mid-20s as a carefree boho living the wild life in Brooklyn and woke up a decade or so later to discover she is married, living in the suburbs and the mother of two kids with a third and quite unplanned one just about ready to make its appearance in the world. Make no mistake, she undeniably loves her kids but they are a handful, especially her younger son (), who exhibits a number of symptoms that suggest autism but which has not yet been properly diagnosed. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is nice enough but not especially helpful—when he isn’t away on one business trip after another, his home routine finds him helping the kids with their schoolwork before spending hours upstairs playing video games to unwind. Even when she gets a few moments to herself, Marlo is never given a chance to simply relax and have a moment to herself—a simple break for a coffee is spoiled when a busybody customer reminds her that her decaf order may well still contain caffeine, the insinuation being that she is a monster for exposing her unborn child to it. After the baby, a daughter named Mia, is born, things soon go downhill from there as the combination of baby-induced sleep deprivation, trying to keep the house going and dealing with what appears to be a case of postpartum depression stretches her to the absolute breaking point.

As a gift, Tully’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) has given her the services of a night nanny—someone who will come into the house at night for a few weeks and keep an eye on Mia while allowing Marlo the opportunity to get some well-deserved rest, even bringing the kid upstairs to her when it is time for feeding, before slipping out again in the morning. At first, Marlo is horrified by the idea of having a stranger coming into the house and bonding with her child but when she becomes simply overwhelmed by everything, she breaks down and makes the call. This brings us to Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a young free spirit who comes in like the child care equivalent of the cavalry. On her first night alone, she not only cares for Mia and brings her up for the feeding so quietly that Drew doesn’t even realize they are in the room but straightens up the house. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Tully sees her job as caring for Marlo as well as Mia and provides her with a sounding board for all of her various frustrations while helping her get back in touch with the fun and happy person she once was. (She even goes so far as to help jump-start another long-dormant aspect of Marlo’s life with Drew in a manner that I suspect was not specifically laid out in the brochure.)

Marlo is relieved beyond belief with the assistance provided by Tully but those of us in the audience may view what is going on with a little more suspicion. With her flawless looks, seemingly inexhaustible energy, her witticisms and fun facts for all occasions and her way around a baby, Tully is so inexcusably perfect—even Mary Poppins would bow down before her—that there is something about her that doesn’t quite ring true. It almost feels like the setup for one of those crappy made-for-TV movies where the ideal babysitter turns out to be a raving psycho who either wants to get rid of the mother and claim the family as her own or needs to sacrifice the baby to some bizarre tree god as part of an unholy ritual. On the other side of the coin, if Tully really is as straight and good and true as she seems to be, what will happen when she inevitably leaves and Marlo is forced to take the reins full time again—will she be able to face the pressures better now that she has a clearer head and if she isn’t, what lengths will she go to in order to keep Tully from leaving her behind?

These questions are answered, sort of, through a series of audacious moves that will certainly get audiences talking but which many may find to be either off-putting or a cop out. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the places that the story takes us and I certainly can’t say that I saw any of it coming. My problem is that in its effort to get to those places, Cody’s screenplay requires viewers to accept a couple of plot points that many will find to be hard to swallow and at least one key point where the film kinda, sorta cheats in the way that it presents some crucial details. Granted, you can find lapses in logic in virtually any movie but the good ones handle them in ways that prevent you from realizing that they don’t make a lot of sense until long after the film ends. Here, the parts I am talking about (and you will probably figure them out as soon as you see them) skirt the boundaries of plausibility the first time you see them and feel even more illogical when you look back on them.

I have a feeling that the elements of “Tully” that I am currently tiptoeing around may cause a lot of viewers to revolt from what they are seeing but I still found myself liking the film a lot despite them. For one thing, it could be argued that Cody is offering her own little twist to those made-for-TV movies I alluded to earlier—as she demonstrates her with a running gag involving that “Gigolos” show, she is clearly not a stranger to the guilty pleasures of trash TV. More importantly, I got the sense watching the film that Cody and Reitman were less interested in the particulars of the narrative and more concerned with illustrating the aspects of motherhood that almost everyone who has had a child can surely relate to but which rarely get aired out in film to the extent that they have here—everything from the mental and physical toll that goes part and parcel with bringing a new life into the world (suffice it to say that this is not a film where the mother regains her model-like figure two weeks after giving birth) to the scarifying notions that can be brought upon by sheer exhaustion to the feelings of shame and embarrassment that their experiences raising a family do not remotely match the fantasies churned out by Hollywood and parenting magazines. In many films involving newborns, there is often a wacky montage involving parents being woken up by crying babies and the like. There is a montage along those lines here as well but there is not a hint of glee to it as Reitman and Cody manage to put us exactly in Marlo’s frazzled mindset. (There is a shot of a container of painfully pumped breast milk getting spilled that is frankly more harrowing than anything found in the entire extended climax of “Infinity War.”)

A lot of the credit for the success of “Tully” also goes to Charlize Theron, who once again bravely tackles the kind of character that a lot of actresses would either shy away from entirely or ask for rewrites to make her role more overtly likable. Although it is easy to feel for Marlo as the demands of her life begin to overwhelm her, there is also plenty about her that is not quite as easy to love—there is a certain degree of cynical self-absorption to her that comes out from time to time and you get the sense that if a genie popped up and offered to get rid of her current existence and return her to the fun times of her 20s, she might actually give it some serious thought. However, no matter how challenging Marlo might be (and she becomes increasingly so as the story progresses), we are still fully in her corner thanks to Theron’s wonderfully empathetic performance that allows us to understand and embrace her flaws without simply sweeping them under the rug. As the person that Theron shares most of her screen time with, Mackenzie Davis is also very good as Tully, taking a character who could have just come across as an accumulation of quirks and bringing her fully to life. Ron Livingston is also very good as Marlo’s husband in the way that he keeps his character real instead of letting him just become a loutish cliche.

“Tully” is a darkly funny and surprisingly provocative meditation on motherhood and the often untold pressures that it entails. It isn’t as great as “Young Adult” (though the two could make for an intriguing double feature) and the inevitable controversies surrounding some of the narrative curlicues are liable to wind up overwhelming some of the finer and subtler points that it wants to convey. Nevertheless, it is absorbing and understanding in ways that are quite powerful at times and contains a number of big laughs along the way thanks to Cody’s traditionally spiky dialogue. As a whole, “Tully” may not be as perfect as the character it is named after but as this film proves, perfection itself is oftentimes an illusion. Besides, when a film is as good as this one is in its finest moments, the lesser aspects fade from memory. You know, kind of like motherhood itself.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31338&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/04/18 10:59:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/06/18 Bob Dog Watch BEFORE you decide to have a baby! 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  20-Apr-2018 (R)
  DVD: 31-Jul-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  20-Apr-2018
  DVD: 31-Jul-2018


Directed by
  Jason Reitman

Written by
  Diablo Cody

Cast
  Charlize Theron
  Mackenzie Davis
  Ron Livingston
  Mark Duplass
  Emily Haine
  Elaine Tan



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