Charlize Theron plays a sleep-deprived, overworked and under-loved mother of three young children in Tully, whose spirit is rejuvenated when a ‘night nanny’ provides a panacea for her woes. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (their third collaboration, following Juno and Young Adult) revisit Mary Poppins by way of bleary-eyed Middle America, substituting the idea that life gets better – or love means sacrifice – for a childish fantasy involving the healing powers of a 20-something, Greta Gerwig-type free spirit.
We met Marlo (Theron) when she is heavily pregnant. She has a hard time finding a parking space with two kids wailing in the car; then a hard time from her challenging young son’s headmaster; then a hard time from a stranger at a cafe – who informs her the decaf coffee she’s ordered invariably contains “trace amounts of caffeine”. It’s clear, even before the montage of broken sleep, tender nipples and spilt milk, that Cody and Reitman will be merciless to their protagonist in service of a broader message.
In visual terms Tully is monstrously ugly, the camera apparently not just hand-held, but apparently hand-shaken.
The blithe Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a godsend; cleaning and cooking and making life bearable again. No self-respecting film about motherhood would dare suggest, however, that outsourcing responsibility is a long-term parenting solution, so the audience understands this stop-gap will cease working at some point. The nanny is a suggestion of Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass). She remains unseen by Marlo’s mellow, video game-playing husband Drew (Ron Livingston) who apparently is happy for a complete stranger to come and go in the middle of the night, while he stays in bed.
Tully and Marlo bond; the former is a rejuvenating presence evoking memories of a seemingly carefree 20s – seemingly, because the film squints through rose-tinted glasses. Tully never seriously considers that younger lives can also carry profound pain and angst. It is matter of when, rather than if, the pair will embark on a hackneyed ‘breaking free’ journey, which will naturally manifest as a detour from the daily grind. An unplanned trip to a bar perhaps, or the beach, or a car ride with somebody’s hair blowing in the breeze.
Tully is a cipher, representing a life that cannot possibly be lived. And thus, she is an unrealistic character; perhaps intentionally so. Sometimes she delivers the slickly sculpted lines we have come to expect of the screenwriter (“I’m like Saudi Arabia, I have an energy surplus!”) and sometimes she is on the receiving end of them (“You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders!”).
The film’s merits belong almost entirely to Charlize Theron.
The contrast between Cody’s contrived writing and Eric Steelberg’s faux documentary cinematography could not be greater. The dialogue is labored and finessed; the wobbly photography totters about like a drunken sailor – evoking Ron Howard’s hideously shot 2015 adventure-drama In the Heart of the Sea, without the justification of being on water. In visual terms, Tully is monstrously ugly; the camera apparently hand-shaken in addition to hand-held. Reitman’s decision to shoot with rickety verisimilitude is wildly out of sync with the screenplay’s spit-polished artifice.
The film’s merits belong almost entirely to Theron, whose character elicits an empathy that’s missing from Cody’s screenplay. The script uses the tribulations of motherhood to tape over a perspective that blurs the line between hard-loved and mean-spirited.
The scope of Marlo’s compassion is never as important as the question of her sanity. Cody and Reitman contrast hopeful fantasy with sober, circumstantial truth. It’s a pale imitation of Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan’s superb 2014 drama Mommy. That moving and stylistically exhilarating film follows a struggling widowed mother who has a son with ADHD. Her life, like Marlo’s, improves either by daydream or not at all.