Tully is like that one well-meaning friend who fails so miserably that you’re just begging them to stop helping you. Jason Reitman’s manipulative domestic drama plods along with re-cycled indie tropes and half-assed emotional epiphanies. He gets a terrific performance from the always-game Charlize Theron as Marlo, but nothing can overcome the film’s egregious missteps, some of which are downright offensive.
Here’s a newsflash: Raising children is hard! If you’re already aware of this immutable Law of Nature, you can skip Tully.
If, however, you’re the kind of person who sticks their hand in a scalding hot pan and is still surprised when it burns you, there’s a chance you’ll find some insight in this familiar yarn.
Marlo certainly doesn’t need anyone to tell her how daunting motherhood can be. She’s already got a problematic little boy (Asher Miles Fallica as ‘Jonah’), a morbidly self-conscious eight-year-old girl (Lia Frankland as ‘Sarah’), and she’s wobbling toward the finish line of a third pregnancy that feels about as ill-advised as Emily Blunt’s pregnancy in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018). “My body looks like the relief map for a war-torn country,” Marlo quips.
Reitman (hamstrung by Diablo Cody’s troublesome script) takes every opportunity to wallow in over-used domestic disasters. We’re treated to a mash-up of temper tantrums, vehicular meltdowns, and enough breast pumping to give your brassiere a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After the baby finally arrives, a clearly depressed Marlo reaches her breaking point. She sits around the house in stained sweatpants, eating junk food and watching the even junkier reality show, Gigolos (this reviewer was both dismayed and delighted to discover such a show actually exists). Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a good guy, but he has to travel a lot for his weird job that nobody understands. He seems to be some sort of computer systems analyst, but he might just be writing TPS reports, for all we know. There’s no fun, no sex, and no chance of parole for the 40-something Marlo, whose inner child is barely on life support.
Enter the new nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis)!
Tully is a 26-year-old blur of ripped jeans and naked midriff who immediately ingratiates herself to Marlo and the fussy newborn. The rules of indie film dictate that Tully be perfect, versed on both pop and refined culture, as well as a nuanced understanding of human behavior to rival the great psychoanalytical minds of our time. One of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, the perfectly cast Davis uses her infectious energy to mask the ridiculousness of the entire scenario.
As if this ‘straight-to-sitcom’ premise wasn’t bad enough, Tully seems to exist in a world before we understood either childhood development or mental illness. Marlo, for instance, is obviously depressed. When the doctor pulls her newborn child from beneath the hospital blanket, it’s as though the stone-faced Marlo was just delivered a sack of groceries. Her postpartum depression isn’t just glossed over… it’s completely ignored. The filmmakers simply can’t allow their clever plot twists to be undone by actually addressing Marlo’s potentially dangerous condition.
Even more unsavory is Reitman’s refusal to acknowledge that Jonah is on the autism spectrum. Despite his textbook symptoms, Jonah is misdiagnosed by multiple physicians and school administrators, who sickeningly refer to him as “quirky”. This allows the story to sidestep the grueling process of helping an autistic child acclimate to his chaotic world. The closest we get to an intervention for poor Jonah is a nightly massage with a horse brush. Basically, Tully uses troubling medical and psychological conditions as little more than character detailing.
Along the way, Reitman (now on a legitimate losing streak after the problematic Men, Women & Children, 2014, and the horrific Labor Day, 2013) indulges several major indie film tropes. We’re treated to terrible karaoke, some boisterous dancing, and characters sitting in an empty hot tube pontificating about the intricacies of life. (To his credit, Reitman overcomes the temptation to play this scene in an empty bathtub). The suitably neutered Drew realizes that he needs to put family first and stop worrying so much about his job, despite it being their only source of income. Plus, there’s plenty of shaky handheld camera work to provide the illusion of intimacy.
Tully‘s lone bright spot is Theron. There isn’t an ounce of glamour in her performance. Instead of burying herself under makeup, like her Oscar-winning turn in Monster, Theron buries herself under 50 pounds of extra weight. She thoroughly inhabits Marlo with genuine dignity and a wry sense of humor. Had the filmmakers remained focused on their admirable thematic intentions (deconstructing the challenges of maintaining personal identity within a confining family structure), it’s hard to imagine the heights to which Theron might have soared.
Even if you somehow manage to stay focused on Theron’s performance and overlook the cavalier treatment of depression and autism and the cloying indie pretensions, there’s no escaping the fact that Tully fails to deliver the intended emotional release. Unless you enjoy being manipulated by plot twists and heavy-handed speechifying, the resolution will probably leave you feeling cold and more than a little confused. Ultimately, the only thing Tully does well is serve as a great advertisement for birth control.