I’ll admit up front that I’m a bit biased on this one, as I’ve been a fan of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman as a collaborative pair since Juno, which is among my all-time favorite films. I also really enjoyed Young Adult. We do not speak of Jennifer’s Body. Suffice to say, I was predisposed to like their latest effort, Tully, despite the noticeable lack of Ellen Page. Even with the preceding reputation, Tully is an immensely enjoyable film, led by two great performances, and one of the most unique depictions of motherhood ever shown.
Charlize Theron stars as Marlo, a suburban New York mom (she works in Human Resources for a protein bar company, but it never comes into play) of two, with number three due in a few days. She lives a happy life, but she has issues, primarily her young son, Jonah, who has some severe emotional difficulties (and is most likely on the autism spectrum, though it’s never explicitly stated). The film itself opens with Marlo using a small brush to massage Jonah’s skin, because a therapist she can no longer afford suggested it would calm him down. We later learn that what really calms him is the loving presence to his mother, to which we all say, “Aww.”
As she prepares to give birth to the family’s third child, her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his super-bourgeois wife decide that their present to her will be to hire a “night nanny,” who comes over to the house at night to care for the baby, so the parents can get some sleep, waking the mother only in emergencies and to nurse.
Marlo is rightfully aghast at the idea at first, because she doesn’t want her child imprinting on and bonding with a stranger. However, after three weeks of newborn hassle and more drama with Jonah (shown in a hilarious montage of baby cries, diaper genies, and literal spilt milk), she decides to relent, and into her life walks the title character, played by Mackenzie Davis. Less of a latter-day Mary Poppins and more of a hot, non-magical Nanny McPhee, Tully is everything Marlo misses about her younger days: she’s happy, energetic, and incredibly fit. One look at her taut buttocks is enough for Marlo to become as nostalgic for bygone youth as every male middle-aged character in mid-life comedies for the last 20 years.
Over the course of a few weeks, Tully avails herself as a godsend for Marlo. She’s resting properly for the first time in ages, and shows none of the postpartum depression she had after Jonah. She’s bonding with Tully, gaining a new friend where she previously had none (the best we see beforehand is a brief encounter with an old roommate/potential lover early in the film). Her relationship with husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) even improves, even though Drew never even gets to meet Tully, save for a late night fantasy encounter of Marlo’s own design.
Drew is also an interesting character, in that he represents an opportunity to be played for cliché, but thankfully Cody and Reitman eschew such things. It would be so easy to make Drew a boorish dullard, but the film takes pains to make sure he really is an ideal husband and father. He works hard, comes home to play/study with the kids, and he loves Marlo with every fiber of his being. Yes, he can occasionally be oblivious to her plight (a scene where he almost passive-aggressively dismisses frozen pizza for dinner), and as Marlo points out, they haven’t had relations in months (though part of that I’m sure is due to her nether region healing from childbirth), with Drew preferring to spend leisure time playing video games. But even then, he learns his lessons, he redoubles his efforts, and never once do you doubt that he loves Marlo even one drop less than he did when their relationship first began.
The performances are strong, and the dialogue has that classic Diablo Cody wit to it. I won’t list any specifics here, because there are some major plot points that I don’t wish to spoil. Of course there will come the inevitable point where Tully has to leave the job, but beyond that there really is no conflict, and I don’t want to reveal anything further. Also, amidst all the shenanigans, the film’s three acts are broken up by images of mermaids swimming underwater. It all gets paid off, and it’s very beautiful.
There are flaws, mostly in the resolution of the last major plot point, and most of the complaints are in retrospect. The film is paced well at a brisk 95 minutes, so in my head, I’m thinking that it wouldn’t have hurt the overall pace and run time to clarify a few points here and there, giving a more precise context to everything. On further review, there are some valid gripes about comparisons to other films that use similar plot devices, which again, I won’t go into here. Finally, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, excuses the use of “Call Me Maybe” or the horrid reality show, Gigolos. I know Diablo Cody likes to put pop culture references into her scripts, obscure and popular alike, but bonding over Brace and singing a karaoke muzak version of Carly Rae Jepsen is a sin against nature. Don’t believe me? Just look in the credits, where the song is listed as “Performed by Studio Musicians.” Even the people recording the karaoke version don’t want their names attached to that dreck.
But overall, these are small scale nits to pick in what is otherwise a wonderful film, mostly because of the frank, warts and all depiction of modern motherhood. And while there are jokes at the expense of upper class white people, there are never any real judgments about what is the right or wrong way to parent. Hell, one of the best running gags is that both Drew and Craig think the other one hates them and thinks he’s an asshole, but they’ve got more in common than they’d ever admit. The film really works because no matter the source, the parents have the same goal, to be the best they can be. Tully brings that out in Marlo, while making her realize that she had all this goodness all along.
There are some heavy themes about mental illness mixed in with the hi-jinks and humor, but on the whole, this is a sweet little film, and the perfect treat if you’re looking for a last-minute Mother’s Day gift this coming weekend. Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis both give great performances, and Diablo Cody and Jason Rietman make a much welcome return to the cinemas.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Cody/Reitman film? Don’t you wish your wife had a waitress costume for sexy time? Let me know!