Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Motherhood at its most Terrifying
At one point during Young Adult, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary character drunkenly screams that “Babies are boring!” In an effort to contradict that statement, Theron along with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunite for Tully seven years later for a challenging and humorous film about motherhood. Theron is Marlo in Tully; a mother of two with a third due in less than a week. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is always working or traveling for work and even when he’s home he spends more time playing video games than he does helping out with the kids. Marlo isn’t sleeping well and is feeling particularly overwhelmed with the constant grind of taking care of a timid young daughter and a special needs son who is a handful for everybody. At the suggestion of her rich brother Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo reluctantly hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) after her newborn daughter is born. Despite some initial concerns about her being peculiar, Marlo eventually realizes that Tully is a godsend and life is much more bearable with her around.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody started something with Juno in 2007, continued that theme in 2011’s Young Adult, and concluded an unorthodox trilogy with Tully in 2018. Reitman and Cody explore unwanted young pregnancy in Juno, the idea of not being able to keep a child when everyone around you is expanding their family in Young Adult, and finally appreciating the individuals who don’t have to worry about children in Tully. There are similar themes spread throughout all three films including trashy television, returning to one’s hometown after being away for a long period of time, dwelling on the past and serious depression but there’s also a maturing aspect over the course of the three films with it all coming full circle.
There seems to be a lot more to dive into in Tully compared to Young Adult. Marlo has become the nightmare Mavis dreads. Kids are gross and marriage is this shackled form of commitment to Mavis, but here’s Marlo on her third kid just trying to keep her head above water long enough to stay afloat in order to start with a belly flop and clumsy doggy paddle the following day. Mavis is shallow, seething with hatred, and completely self-absorbed. She has a reckless demeanor, chugs alcohol as if it’s the only thing that will satisfy her thirst, and is completely delusional not only of her work but also of her former high school boyfriend who is now happily married with a newborn daughter. Marlo has more of an incentive to hate everyone and everything around her. She’s essentially getting no help in regards to taking care of her kids, everyone tiptoes around her son Jonah’s, “quirky,” behavior, and day to day life has evolved into this never-ending loop of no sleep, crying children, poopy diapers, and piles of barf that never get tended to. Marlo never has the chance to relax or take a breath. She is endlessly hammered by the duties of motherhood and she is the crooked nail that is nearing its breaking point.
There’s this unbelievably genuine streak of meanness found within the lead characters Diablo Cody writes into her screenplays; self-absorption, an explosive hatred aimed towards the world around them, and a venomous arsenal of insults obliterating anyone who dares to get in between them and their selfish desires. These are characters you should probably hate, but you end up sympathizing with them and admiring the fact that they state their mind rather than just saying what they think others want to hear. When we first meet Marlo in Tully, she is still saving face and attempting to cover up that her life is falling apart. It doesn’t take long for Marlo to shed that false skin though and show her true colors. Tully does an impeccable job of portraying just how overwhelmed Marlo is in this situation; how redundant it becomes and her nerves withering away to dust right before our eyes. You can practically feel the extreme fatigue setting in while exhaustion and depression take turns poking and prodding Marlo until she cracks.
If you’re using Young Adult as a kind of template, it’s milder in comparison to Tully. While both films are R-rated, it seems like the majority of the adult language in Young Adult takes place during Mavis’ public meltdown unless the jabs to Matt’s (Patton Oswalt) mangled genitals count. Tully throws the F-word around more frivolously and utilizes it in a way that is almost therapeutic. The issues Marlo faces on a day to day basis are legitimate reasons to exclaim profanity as often or as loudly as possible because there is no doubt anyone would react the same way if we were in her shoes. Jason Reitman usually has an eye for superb performances with his films, but Tully provides these complicated on-screen presences that are mesmerizing and memorable. Ron Livingston probably has the least amount of screen time next to Mark Duplass but is able to have at least one emotional scene that is fantastically effective. Mackenzie Davis has this knowledge of the world that shouldn’t come to someone so young and seems to work magic as a nanny. She is plagued by the poor decisions you make before you’re mature enough to think otherwise. Davis seems like a natural with a love for children and a sparkle in her eye that twinkles whenever she makes herself useful.
Charlize Theron has this unhealthy and illogical obsession in Young Adult that fuels her delusions and lack of closure until the final moments of the film. She is funny and frustrated at every turn in Tully. Theron always has her hands full in the film whether her arms are overflowing with bags and baby supplies or mentally and emotionally overloaded by the stress of carrying the entire weight of being both parents in a joint relationship. Even when Theron isn’t cursing at the world, the scenes where she doesn’t speak, like being completely deflated while watching Gigolos and eating a plate of nachos or staring off into a haze while her son anxiously kicks the back of her car seat, are the scenes that have the most impact. Theron gained 50 pounds for this role and is completely devoted to both the Marlo character and the film. She leaves a lasting impression and is able to bring the many complexities of a multi-layered character to life with depth and charisma.
Tully is wonderfully genuine with this incredibly human perspective of motherhood. There’s a profound quality to Charlize Theron’s performance since it is such a simple concept, but it is so real and relatable that you can’t help but feel so much for a little 90-minute comedy-drama. Of the three films that compose the Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody unwanted/unplanned pregnancy trilogy, Tully makes the biggest impact and Charlize Theron continues to grow as an actor that can provide exceptional entertainment through authenticity, empathy, and a witty disposition.
© 2018 Chris Sawin