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Tully

Posted May 6, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” —Henry David Thoreau

For a time, it seemed like Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody were on top of the world. Coming off a fantastic directorial debut with Thank You For Smoking, Reitman made his sophomore directing effort with freshman screenwriter Cody, resulting in multiple Oscar nominations and even a Best Original Screenplay win for Juno. Reitman went on to further Oscar success with Up in the Air while Cody went on to television and did respectably well with “The United States of Tara”.

And then… I dunno. Somehow, they simply couldn’t keep up the momentum.

The two of them collaborated on Jennifer’s Body (Cody wrote, Reitman exec-produced), which was quickly discarded from pop culture relevance when the novelty of Megan Fox playing a succubus wore off. The two worked together yet again on Young Adult, which never found the audience or the Oscar buzz that Juno did. Cody later went on to write Ricki and the Flash — the last movie made by Jonathan Demme before his death —  which scored middling box office, a lukewarm critical reception, and zero awards recognition (which is saying something, for a Meryl Streep picture).

As for Jason Reitman… yikes. While he’s achieved decent success as an exec-producer (see: Whiplash), his subsequent directorial choices gave us Labor Day, along with Men, Women & Children. Two of the most embarrassing critical and financial bombs of their respective years, coming from a contender for Best Director hailed as a prodigy only four short years prior.

With all of this in mind, putting Director Reitman together again with Screenwriter Cody seems to reek of desperation. It looks exactly like a couple of washed-up filmmakers trying desperately to recapture a magic that’s long since gone without hope of ever returning. We’ve seen this happen a million times before, and it never works.

Only this time, it did. In fact, it worked really fucking well. Even better than it ever has before. Seriously.

Tully stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, whom we meet just before she gives birth to her third child. This is a woman in her forties, exhausted from all the work of caring for her kids, especially while her husband (Drew, played by Ron Livingstone) is out working to pay the bills. And on top of all this, along comes a newborn who needs 24/7 care.

Marlo is the typical Diablo Cody protagonist in that she’s a woman who talks and acts without regard for political correctness or any phony 21st century New Age bullshit. But it works here, and not just because there’s none of the ubiquitous slang that made Juno so instantly dated. No, what really makes the approach work here is that it shows how Marlo is done giving a shit. She’s been so thoroughly worn down by the world that she doesn’t have time for euphemisms or polite games. She’s bottled up her stress and her anger for so long that we see it all boil over as Marlo lashes out at everyone around her.

This is a huge strength of the entire film, but it’s especially prominent in the first act: The filmmakers are not afraid to show what a royal pain in the ass it is to be a parent. It’s entirely possible to be a loving mother with a wonderful child, while also being stressed to the breaking point in every possible way by the experience of motherhood. It’s not very often we see this dynamic, in which a loving mother is portrayed as a fallible and flawed human being — physically exhausted, financially broken, mentally and emotionally spent — instead of a saint. It’s a masterfully authentic approach that elicits viewer sympathy from the word “go.”

Anyway, Marlo has a rich and smarmy brother (Craig, played by Mark Duplass) who takes it on himself to pay for a night nurse. This nanny materializes as the eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who comes to take care of the newborn Mia and shows Marlo how to be a better person. It sounds like a hackneyed and cloying premise, but I swear it totally works. Why? Well, the actors involved, for starters. Theron is long past the point where she has to prove her talent as an actor, and Mackenzie Davis is gorgeous and talented enough that she should have made the A-list years ago.

The two actors on their own individual merit are great enough, but the interplay between them is phenomenal. Of course, a great deal of that has to do with Cody and Reitman, and the film’s aforementioned commitment to authenticity. Marlo and Tully confide in each other and talk with each other in ways that feel heartbreakingly real, which not only tells us more about the characters but advances their respective arcs and the movie’s themes in a compelling way.

More than anything else, it’s the contrast between Marlo and Tully that powers the movie. Marlo is in her forties, with a body racked by the traumas of age and three childbirths, while Tully is the picture of youth and health. Marlo has to juggle so many responsibilities, without the time or energy to do everything she has to in a day, while Tully has no commitments or responsibilities to eat up her time. Marlo has long since burned through the energy and optimism that Tully still has in abundance.

But easily the most important difference is clearly stated by Tully herself: “I’m not afraid of the future.” Marlo is looking down the barrel of middle-age burnout, terrified of being even older and more broken than she already is. But while Marlo looks at her life and sees the glass half-empty, Tully sees the glass half-full. She’s eagerly awaiting the day when she can have a loving family and a stable life, just like Marlo. With Tully’s youth comes hope, and with Marlo’s experience comes cynicism. The two need each other, and that’s a huge part of why these two characters need each other.

Another factor is that while Tully is very much a product of her time, she isn’t a sanctimonious yuppie like most in the supporting cast. She’s more grounded than the rest of the aggressively modern supporting cast, but she’s also more adventurous and open-minded than Marlo. She’s an ideal middle ground between the two, which makes her a perfect guide to help Marlo out of her own funk and back into the sunshine of the outside world.

Another huge part is that… well, it really does take a village to raise a child. Marlo keeps wondering how anyone could possibly do everything that’s expected of her as a mother of three, and the hard truth is that no one can. Hell, how can anyone be expected to parent on our own when we can’t even get through life on our own? Over the course of the film, Marlo has to learn how to relinquish some measure of control for the sake of her kids and herself.

At the same time, however, there’s the question of balancing family responsibilities with personal ones. A huge part of why Marlo is so fucked up is because she’s put so much of herself into caring for her family that she hasn’t found the time to take care of her own needs. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of Tully: Sooner or later, her own personal needs and responsibilities will interfere with her job. This was only ever a temporary arrangement and the bottom is bound to fall out sooner or later, so what will Marlo and her kids do when that happens?

To recap, we’ve got a lot of fascinating balancing acts going on here. We’ve got optimism versus cynicism, youth versus age, experience versus potential, the group versus the individual, the mundane and boring versus the exciting and unpredictable, etc. As the plot unfolds, we see all of these different conflicts unfold in umpteen million different ways, showing the characters and the audience how one side needs the other. Youthful ignorance should be tempered by the wisdom that comes with age, but those who grow old must never forget how fearless they were and how wide the world was when they were young.

Which brings me to the big climactic Plot Twist. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I wouldn’t want to spoil the movie and also because you’d laugh in my face if I told you. On paper, this big Plot Twist is so squirrelly, cloying, and hackneyed that it easily could have and probably should have derailed the whole damn film. Yet the filmmakers handle it so deftly that it somehow achieves the opposite effect and brings the movie into sharper focus. I have no idea how they did that, but I’m sure it has something to do with our two main characters and the women playing them.

Marlo and Tully are so endlessly heartwarming and thought-provoking that everything else around them feels like mere window dressing. Marlo’s brother and sister-in-law are obnoxious and unfunny parodies of modern parenting. Her husband gets an arc about how he needs to be more involved with his family, but he gets so little screen time and established personality that the angle barely registers.

Marlo’s first child (Sarah, played by Lia Frankland) is another character so inconsequential that she may as well not even be there, and of course the newborn Mia is little more than a prop. Then we have middle child Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). He appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, but he has so many tics and compulsions that nobody really has any idea what kind of disorder he has or what to do with him. Jonah — as with everyone else in Marlo’s family — isn’t really a character so much as he’s a reason why Marlo is stressed out all the time. He’s also a huge part of why the movie has gotten backlash for its portrayal of mental illness and, uh… yeah, I have a hard time denying that. Though the movie does a fine job addressing the Catch-22 of taking time off work to care for a problem child who might get some necessary treatment if the parent could work to earn money to pay for the treatment, so there’s that.

We’ve also got a recurring mermaid motif that I personally couldn’t make any kind of sense out of. Also all the jokes made at the expense of rich white assholes and their First World Problems got very old very quickly.

Ultimately, Tully succeeds because the core Marlo/Tully interplay is just that damned good. There are so many layers here to unpack and all of it is deeply compelling, because these are deeply personal issues being explored by two remarkable characters in a complex and poignant relationship. It’s wonderful how so much of this movie goes into ugly, heartbreaking, and painfully honest places where few other movies would dare, and it comes out the other side uplifting and inspirational. Even the worst parts of this movie are little more than filler and background noise, though your mileage may vary with regard to the mental health aspect.

This one is a fine bit of Avengers counter-programming, well worth checking out.