In “Tully,” the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a New York suburban mom with two kids who’s about to give birth to her third. Offhand, it would be hard to think of another movie that dug into the messy, overwhelming, how-the-hell-am-I-gonna-get-through-this? aspects of motherhood the way that this one does.
Theron’s performance is fearless, emotionally raw, and physically intense, rippled with embattled waves of exhaustion and anger. After her infant daughter, Mia, is born, Marlo is still carrying her baby weight (the way that mothers in movies almost never do). But more than that she’s carrying the weight of the world. Theron gives a heroically unglamorous and knife-edged performance, lashing out in ways both big and small. She lets us see how doing so makes perfect sense for a woman who is starting to feel the act of giving life — and sustaining it — draining the life out of her.
Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is an ineffectual nice guy who does “what he can,” but that isn’t really much. He works hard at his career, helps the other children with their homework, and unwinds playing video games. He’s clueless, like so many husbands, about the way his wife’s existence has turned into a pressure cooker, and Reitman orchestrates an ingeniously extended montage of baby care (the waking and feeding and changing of diapers that’s so constant it begins to feel like a conspiracy of sleep deprivation) to put the audience right in the middle of it.
Enter…the Diablo Cody free spirit. The upstart of wisecracking hellbent feminine moxie. That was Juno, of course, and it was also the messed-up, tart-tongued anti-heroine played by Theron in “Young Adult.” In “Tully,” it is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny who’s been offered to Marlo as a gift from her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass). For a while, Marlo resists the offer, but after a few weeks of baby care break her down, she gives in and calls. And the young woman who shows up at the door is like a nanny from heaven.
She’s 26 years old, wise beyond her years, sharp and sexy in a maroon cut-off top, and a supremely vibrant and generous caregiver. The Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis looks, and acts, like some heretofore unheralded relative of Julia Roberts, and she makes Tully’s presence a balm. She looks after the baby at night so that Marlo can slumber, bringing the crying infant to her for breast-feedings (though it’s hard not to notice that the film tiptoes around the possibility of co-sleeping).
She also cleans up the house, engages in a deeply knowing and informed-about-everything brand of millennial repartee, and beams with pleasure as she drops whimsical holistic pensées like “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” Marlo looks at her and says, “You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.” Which is, more or less, a fine thing to be, especially if you’re delivering dialogue that carries that Diablo Cody snap.
Tully, for a good while, doesn’t do anything terribly exotic — she’s like an extremely hip postpartum doula. But as her blissed-out ministrations bring Marlo back to life, the audience can’t help but wonder: What’s the catch? Without one, there would be no drama; there would be no movie. Without revealing the catch, I’ll just say that the first clue arrives when Tully volunteers to spice up Marlo’s sex life by sleeping with her husband, and the plan, unlikely as it sounds, works out swimmingly.
Jason Reitman has had a curious career. A decade ago, he had two terrific hits in a row: “Juno” (2007), with its impishly scandalous young heroine, and “Up in the Air” (2009), a bracing romantic fable that took stock of the collapsing middle class from the point of view of George Clooney’s downsizing messenger of bad news. Both films tapped into something and connected, not just at the box office but with the inner spirit of the audience. In the years since, however, Reitman has become a creator of beveled-edge movies that feel like glorified trifles. It’s hard to say what, exactly, is missing, but even though Reitman is working in the humanist tradition of Jonathan Demme, his films have become sincere but minor diversions. And that goes for “Tully” as well.
Theron’s performance is something to see, but apart from that there’s an earnest soft-headedness to “Tully.” Take the character of Marlo’s son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). He’s got some serious issues — he’ll do stuff like relentlessly kick the back seat of the car, or break into hysterical screaming at the sound of a school toilet flushing. Marlo insists that he’s just “quirky,” even when his school pegs him as a problem child; she’s finally forced to withdraw him and move him to a different school. But what’s the film’s attitude? Jonah strikes us as having potential traits of autism, yet through all the arguments about him the word is never mentioned. It’s as if Reitman wants him to be, simply, quirky.
And then there’s Tully. She convinces Marlo to take a night off, driving with her to Marlo’s old stomping ground of Bushwick for a girls’ night out. The two drink bourbon, bang heads in a mosh pit, and wind up in a punk-hellhole bathroom draining Marlo’s breasts of milk, so that she’s not in pain. Women who are mothers may feel like they’ve never seen a scene like this one before; it hits a note of naked truth.
What happens next, however, does not. Reitman and Cody have tried to make a movie that confronts, head on, the secret anguish of motherhood — not just the physical demands and the exhaustion, but the journey that can make mothers, on their darkest days, feel like they’re losing their minds. That’s a daring thing to try to put into a movie, and the filmmakers deserve a salute for it. Yet their strategy proves more audacious than it is convincing. “Tully” has its heart (and many other things) in the right place, but by the end you wish it had an imagination finely executed enough to match its empathy.