There are things about Tully that can’t be explained, only experienced.
You have to trust this. No hints, no spoilers.
The more you find out in advance, the more the magic will be dispelled, but once you know, you’re going to want to watch it a second time. Right away.
On the surface, director Jason Reitman’s film, now in theaters, looks like a smart dramatic comedy about a desperately overburdened mom (Charlize Theron) who is rescued from the breaking point by a wise and upbeat night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis). And it is that. But it’s also more. The third film from Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (who collaborated on Juno and Young Adult) is playing a game of hide-and-seek with the audience, delivering plot twists you expect from a thriller — only these are happy ones.
But before the magic happens, the movie has some drudgery to introduce. Theron’s Marlo is in a very compromised place, juggling the responsibilities of nursing a newborn, dealing with an apparently learning-disabled son, and trying to find time for her gifted eldest daughter, who too often disappears.
“It’s such a cliché to describe it as ‘brave’ when an actress does something devoid of vanity, but it really was brave,” Cody says of Theron. “She’s very, very vulnerable in this role, and she had to be, because that’s the point. As an audience, we have to buy Marlo as someone who’s completely lost control of her life and is not taking care of herself, and Charlize went there.”
Reitman says Theron’s choice to gain weight, get swallowed by ill-fitting sweatsuits, and go make-up free was only half of what she took on to achieve a particularly raw performance. “The other half of it is just, ‘In this scene you’re going to scream at your kids, and you’re not screaming at them in a funny way, and you don’t hate your kids, you’re just at the end of your rope,” he says. “And we’re just portraying a private moment that no one ever wants to be seen living.”
But then, help arrives in the form of Tully.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As parents, my wife and both really enjoyed Tully. I could tell it came from a very real place, because it reminded us a lot of the daily, uh…
DIABLO CODY: The trenches! [Laughs]
The trenches, yes. The front lines.
CODY: It’s a gnarly time in the life of a parent.
For sure… [Pause] Should we wait for Jason, or should we start chatting?
JASON REITMAN: [Joining call] Oh, no. I’m here guys! Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to, I was just enjoying the conversation.
CODY: Oh, hey! Can you tell how… [goes silent]
Can we tell what?
CODY: Nothing, I was gonna ask Jason if he could tell how f—ed up and tired I was, but then I was like, “Is that the most appropriate topic to introduce into the conversation?”
REITMAN: I actually cannot, but you’re good.
This is a movie about exactly that, though. In one of my favorite scenes from the film, the new night nurse Tully is talking with the absolutely exhausted mom Marlo, who is lamenting that she’s a bad mother because great moms have lots of energy, and they make cupcakes that look like Minions.
CODY: I [like] this scene because it, obviously, I have a lot of insecurities as a mother. I have three kids. I work constantly, and I am most certainly not the mom who’s on the PTA or is… right? PTA? Is that what they call it?
Yeah, that’s right.
CODY: I don’t even know what the name of the organization is. That’s how disconnected I am from that world.
But you got it.
CODY: I just feel like shit a lot because I’m not the one making the Minions cupcake, and I’m not the one planning the most magical birthday for her kid. You know? We get a cake from the grocery store when one of my kids has a birthday, and there are other moms who are throwing incredibly elaborate Frozen-themed parties where Elsa shows up and shits ice!
I know what you mean.
CODY: For me, the script in general was therapeutic for me, because I was able to kinda deal with some of my own insecurities through the character of Marlo. And I don’t think that there is, I don’t mean to throw dads under the bus, because I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on dads as well, which I didn’t necessarily get into in this movie as much. But I don’t think that the specific pressure to make Minion cupcakes is on dads.
You’re probably right.
CODY: Like, the domestic stuff, which for me, the domestic aspect of parenting is the most challenging part of the whole thing, and I feel like the moms are stuck with stuff like that.
One of thing that you have that Marlo doesn’t is this creative, challenging work that consumes you so much. As she goes on in this conversation with Tully, she kind of explains she’s an office manager. Kind of a soul-sucking job. She doesn’t even get that satisfaction, that creative burst from her work, right?
CODY: Yeah, there’s certain people who have come to me like, ‘Oh, is this script autobiographical?’ And I say ‘Not at all!’ Because I actually am in a privileged position where I have a lot of household support, and I have my dream job. So, for Marlo, going through this transformation as a mother, and going through this level of exhaustion is even harder, because she hasn’t figured out what she wants to be when she grows up …. despite the fact that she’s grown up.
REITMAN: Something that I thought was so clever in the writing was that you entered this movie presuming that it’s gonna be about a night nanny who solved the day-to-day issues of being a parent, and that all of her help is going to be closely attached to the traditional physical duties of being a parent, and you realize halfway through the movie, and particularly in this scene, that Tully is there to help Marlo go through this complicated emotional beat in her life. And that doesn’t entirely have to do with being a parent.
When Tully shows up, she says “I’m here to take care of you.”
REITMAN: Tully is there to help fix Marlo on her own, even outside of the identity of being a mom. Marlo has that great line, “I wake up and I just feel like, ‘Didn’t I already do this?'” I remember the first time that I read that, that resonated with me as much as anything in that scene. I know that feeling. Everybody knows that feeling.
You just reach a point when your life stops being different enough?
REITMAN: When you’re younger, you look, you look toward your eventual life with some sort of a sense of adventure, because most of it is unknown, and so much of it has potential. Whether you’re succeeding or failing in life. Later, there’s a kind of Sisyphean grind. There’s something really brave about Diablo’s writing that doesn’t simply look at motherhood as some great gift that doesn’t come with thankless work.
It’s a tough movie to talk about because I think you could easily describe it in a way that kind of masks all of its secrets and its magic. Is there a way that you guys talk about the movie that preserves those surprises but does not, but still reveals that they are there to be found?
CODY: It’s really tricky to describe, and I know the whole process of introducing people to this movie’s tricky. I don’t know. I guess it’s not inaccurate to say that it’s about the unusual relationship between a woman and the person who comes to save her in her darkest hour.
REITMAN: I have not been able to solve this problem. I’ve been thinking about it for the last year. There’s something really lovely about not knowing what’s happening and having that unveiled for you. There’s a certain magic to it.
Do you guys have any plans for the future? You’ve done Juno, Young Adult … Do you know what movie you’ll make together next?
CODY: We will again, for sure! That’s my plan, God willing! Knock wood!
REITMAN: It’s like we’ve been working together on this mutual diary for the last decade. That we’re around the same age, and we started working together, and every five years, we’ve made a movie that somehow echoes our most recent experiences. For whatever reason, we found each other as storytellers, and there’s this, and it was an arranged marriage, but it was one of those arranged marriages that worked.
CODY: For sure.
REITMAN: And it feels like we’re now ourselves coming to close on one of those chapters with these three films, and I’m very curious what the next three will be.
CODY: I like that you ended it that way, because I thought you were going to say, “It feels as though the chapter has closed and I don’t have to talk to this woman anymore!” It felt like it was ramping up to that — so relieved.
REITMAN: No, like I’m just as curious about the movie we’re going to make in our sixties.
CODY: I’m very curious about that.
It’ll have to be some virtual reality.
CODY: [Laughs] It will be an immersive experience. People will be talking at you from all angles!