At the Movies
Twisty Tale of Motherhood
By Noah Gittell
Marlo (Charlize Theron), the heroine of “Tully,” is not a happy person. She’s depressed, anxious, sarcastic, cynical, and sometimes – often, really – downright mean. It’s rare to see a woman get the chance to exhibit these qualities in a leading role – usually, only men get to be anti-heroes. To see a mother portrayed this way, however, is downright revolutionary.
As written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”, “Young Adult”), “Tully” is the most realistic, warts-and-all depiction of motherhood in the modern era. When we meet her, Marlo already has two children – a perfectly normal 8-year-old daughter and a socially-stunted 5-year-old son – and is about to burst with her third. Literally and figuratively, she is a powder keg about to explode.
Her husband (Ron Livingston) works but doesn’t earn enough for them to hire help. She stays at home, barely able to get the kids in and out of the car with a comically-large, realistically-sized midsection always getting in the way. She’s not the kind of mother she and society-at-large want her to be, the kind that “bakes cupcakes that look like Minions” for her son’s class. She can barely get through the day without breaking down into tears.
When the new baby arrives, Marlo feels no joy of motherhood. All she feels is obligation. Director Jason Reitman uses his slick, commercial sensibility to efficiently imbue the audience with the oppressive sense of routine. An early montage in which days and nights blend into one long session of diapers changings is terrifyingly effective.
But the question “Tully” really asks is: Are Marlo’s problems normal? Or is her spiritual emptiness a sign of something worse? Into this broken world comes Tully (MacKenzie Davis), a 26-year-old “night nanny,” bearing answers. Tully’s official job is to take care of the baby at night, so Marlo can sleep and act like a human being during the day. But the youngster believes her job is to take care of Marlo, as well. “You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole,” she says. “Yeah,” Marlo replies tartly. “No one’s treated my whole in a really long time.”
Eventually, Marlo gets with the program, and the two become fast friends. In fact, it happens a little too fast. Much of what occurs in the film’s second half strains credulity. Tully seems to be more of a screenplay invention than a character. Her interest in Marlo is genuine and thorough. Who among us wouldn’t want a young friend with endless reserve of nonjudgmental curiosity about our hopes, fears, and dreams? But nothing about their friendship seems natural or normal, and it robs the film of real drama.
Cody’s script has a clever response to this problem in its third-act twist, which I certainly spoil here, although it’s fair to say that it changes much of what has come before. That’s fine if what came before worked on its own, but the uneasy feeling that the film is cheating the audience never goes away. As it stands, “Tully” is the rare film that might have benefitted from revealing its twist earlier and exploring those realities, instead of using them as a narrative gimmick.
But enough about what might have been. What works most about “Tully” is the brave, ego-less performance by Theron. Rejecting the artificiality of a fat suit, Theron gained fifty pounds for her authentic portrayal of late-stage motherhood. It’s a career-best performance. When Marlo breaks down, Theron’s cheeks go flush with rage. At the end of the day, her eyes are blank with exhaustion. When dreaming of her forgotten youth, she lights up, and we see her as the electric twentysomething she once was.
After building her career on objectifying ingénue roles in B-movies like “Two Days in the Valley” and “Reindeer Games,” this role – and this earnest but uneven film – is a major milestone in her career and, more generally, Hollywood femininity. Theron may have aged out of her starlet days, but she found a way to bare something more substantial: her soul.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue