Sometimes a little pinch of the unexpected can make all the difference. Take the new Charlize Theron movie Tully, which was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the creative team behind 2007’s Juno and 2011’s Young Adult. Based on the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film was an acerbically fizzy comedy about the thankless, stretched-thin hardships of motherhood and the sunny nanny who swoops in to save the day — Mary Poppins meets a sarcastic eye-roll emoji. Tully is that … kind of. But it’s also something far richer and weirder, and ultimately more interesting.
Theron stars as Marlo, a former Brooklyn free spirit who once upon a time got married and moved to the suburbs and now somehow finds herself as a put-upon, stressed-out mother of two, with a third on the way in a matter of days. Her husband, played (or rather, nicely underplayed) by Ron Livingston, is the kind of guy who means well but who’s also largely absent at work all day while she teeters precariously on the edge of losing it, from either her son kicking the back of her car seat, or his principal suggesting a tutor she can’t afford, or the judgey comments from people who look at her sideways when she orders a decaf coffee because as a pregnant woman she should know that decaf has trace amounts of caffeine and therefore she’s a terrible person who doesn’t care about the health of her unborn child. Something’s gotta give — and it’s going to real soon.
Then Marlo’s rich-jerk brother (Mark Duplass, nailing it with his Mercedes G-wagon and smug, Polynesian-themed man cave) gives her the gift of a night nurse after she gives birth. It’s an extravagant, un-jerky gesture even if, to her, it reeks of condescension — his way of implying she can’t handle being a mom. But after too many sleepless nights filled with spilled breast milk and toes stubbed on Legos, she gives in. And after dinner one night, salvation arrives in the form of Tully (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis), a smiling, funky, New Agey 20-something panacea in a belly shirt. That evening, Marlo not only gets her first decent night’s sleep in years, she wakes up to find the house spotless.
Tully quickly becomes more than just an after-hours nanny. She becomes a confidant as she and Marlo stay up late talking and drinking sangria. She’s like a younger, less jaded version of the person Marlo once was. She even manages to help jump-start Marlo’s stalled relationship with her husband, whose only real interest in the bedroom is putting on a headset and playing videogames.
As Marlo, Theron reaches deep and sells every scene she’s in (which is pretty much all of them) with conviction, desperation, yearning exhaustion, and, yes, even humor. In our society, there’s something almost transgressive in speaking up and admitting that motherhood is hard and occasionally unrewarding when everyone is quick to point out what a “blessing” it is. Being honest about that — especially in a product of the Hollywood dream factory — feels almost taboo. But it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s why Theron’s performance feels as jumpy and dangerous as a downed power line.
Cody, who until now has been a writer more comfortable trafficking in hipster quips and toying with easy archetypes, has written a story with real characters grappling with real issues in a way that doesn’t feel like a pose or in airquotes here. Tully feels like the work of a writer who’s matured and lived and become less superficial without giving up any of her natural gift for finding humor in the absurd. She’s also become bolder and more experimental. Without going into the second half of the film, all I’ll say is that Tully takes some daring detours that I didn’t see coming. And it’s a better, less predictable movie for it. It may not end up being the quirky slice of comic misanthropy the trailers are hawking to get you into the theater. Not by a longshot. But it doesn’t matter. Because Tully is better than that movie. B+