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« MTV Movie & TV Award Nominees | Main | GLAAD Media Award Winners 2018 »
Sunday
May062018

Review: "Tully"

by Chris Feil

With Juno, screenwritwer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman made a quippy comedy on teen pregnancy with more subtlety than first meets the eye. Pairing again for Young Adult, they approached the bitter delusion of its alcoholic protagonist with patient and understated compassion. Now arrives their third collaboration Tully, an equally gracious and hilarious look at personal growth and self-awareness, this time with motherhood at the forefront.

It’s a special thing when we get even one great comedy with such a deep well of empathy for its subject, but Cody and Reitman have gifted us with an unimpeachable trilogy on empathy that challenges audience bias. And Tully is their riskiest entry yet.

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo, a mother of two young children awaiting the imminent arrival of a third. We know precious little of Marlo beyond her place as Mother, her life defined purely by how to get through the day as unscathed as possible. She barely sleeps, has tensions with school administration, and her husband steals away at night for zombie video games. When Marlo submits to the suggestion of her wealthier brother and hires a “night nanny” named Tully, Marlo slowly reveals herself to us as she also gets reacquainted to herself.

As physically and psychologically attuned as she was to Young Adult’s Mavis Gary, Theron is once again a powerhouse tragicomic performer here. Theron is arrested as Marlo is tentative, providing clarity to her character’s confusion without being prescriptive or definitive to what’s ailing her. Our ability to fill in Marlo’s past and the parts she ignores of her own present speaks to Theron’s layered work, but also make Tully as emotionally absorbing a comedy as it is. It boggles the mind why she is consistently omitted from discussions of greatest working actors when she’s delivering work like this.

Mackenzie Davis as the free spirited Tully is fittingly opposite to Marlo, carefree and  indefatigably sunny when Marlo is empty and spent. Davis’s relaxed screen presence and smart maneuvering of Tully’s own shortcomings make for a deceptively precise performance, a more complex opposite to Theron’s Marlo than the cliche you might expect. While Theron puts it all on the table, Davis gives Tully plenty to hide and avoid. Ron Livingston as Marlo’s husband Drew also comes with that signature catch-you-offguard Reitmanian depth and is part of what makes the film’s third act leap work as well as it does.

At times, Tully embraces the full inescapable terror of motherhood and to near horror film levels. One post-confrontation parking lot scene becomes a particularly intense nightmare thanks to the well-established internal stakes and Theron’s exhaustive and exhausted performance, like It Follows if The It was a crying baby. Marlo is trapped in plain sight - in her body, in her situation, and especially in her own mind. Part of the film’s power is how efficiently it places us in her headspace, and then wrings from it cohesive notes of humor, utter horror, and compassion.

The rat-a-tat rhythms of previous Cody/Reitman collaborations are well suited to this vision of parental strife, but here they achieve a trickier high wire act of narrative rule-bending composition. It’s at first jarring when the film halts for one of many lengthy scenes between Marlo and Tully, much as it would be to the self-care starved Marlo. The attentions of Tully are dotted with strangeness, putting us in the unsure footing Marlo has when having to express herself to the film’s first open ear. These scenes feel tensely long, at first painfully so for Marlo before she eases into communication, ultimately getting lost in them as we too get to absorb her inner life. As ever, the film is structurally built to generate that empathy by illuminating her experience in all its fitful amorphous chaos.

Crucially, the film only focuses on Marlo’s relationship with her children to a certain extent. Cultural conditioning often reduces mothers through that lens, with even the most well-intended persons and their art falling into the trap. Yes, being a mother is an important piece of who Marlo is, but not nearly the whole or the simple definer. What the film is unpacking is the way those things become entangled, and Cody, Reitman, and Theron explore the nuance of what might seem obvious about this statement. If last year’s Lady Bird posited itself as the “call your mother” movie, Tully thinks that isn’t enough - it demands that you know her as her own person.

Tully has some surprises up its sleeves, particularly one crucial detail of Marlo’s life revealed immediately that is seldom depicted onscreen. The unexpectedness of this complication (it’s perhaps not a spoiler, but definitely something much more impactful when kept out of plot synopses and trailers) mirrors our cultural inability to understand or openly talk about situations like Marlo’s. And yes the film has a major rug pull, all the more unexpected given Cody’s steadiness as a storyteller. It makes a bold move, one that dares losing the viewer even, but ultimately pulls it off through its convincing empathic outlook. Tully actually heals something.

Seldom do comedies come from the gut (even Cody/Reitman ones) as this film does. Or do ones dealing with depression and mental health not dive into the easily indulged notes of cynicism or grand empty sentiment. Instead, Tully is rigorous comedy of emotional intelligence, both for its characters and for the audience.

Grade: A

Oscar Chances: A just world has Theron and Cody in respective Best Actress and Original Screenplay consideration, but spring release and low grosses are going to be a hindrance.

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Reader Comments (15)

It's a shame no one considers early release performances anymore unless they are to big to ignore Blanchett or in a cultural hit Kaluuya in Get Out.

I do think Theron will get a 3rd nom in the future the one she the should've won a 2nd for in 2011 still stings,what a bad category that year is apart from Viola but all the stars have to line up though.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I'm one of those people who was driven away by the rug pull. It cheapened the story for me and it took away an aspect of this movie for which I was loving it (and I really was loving it before then)...

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

'Tully' is so sharp and incisive, I loved it. I have *feelings* about where the narrative goes, but it really just gives more depth to Theron's character.

Marlo is such a deep character - you see her reacting in small ways that instantly tell what she is feeling. Her exhaustion, exasperation, and hesitance to accepting help are all deeply felt. Theron gives a great performance, I would love to see her in the Oscar conversation later this year, but it probably won't be - and I agree with you that she is one of our greatest working actors - her facility in working in both action and small drama is truly amazing.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I liked how the second act softened the first. The third act is preposterous and throws off the whole movie. It’s unfortunate they went down that path.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I wanna see this at a bargain matinee. Especially with a sharp tonal left turn that may sour me on the whole thing. Young Adult was awesome and fun. This looks like white people issues the movie and there are tons of those.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

The twist did not work for me at all. And it is particulately annoying in that the film didn't need it at all. Shame, cause I was loving it till that point

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterchasm301

Chris Feil: I mean, Theron probably should be at somewhere between 3-5 nominations by now, if we're limited ONLY to live-action performances. The two she got, plus one or all of Young Adult (Over Michelle Williams), Fury Road (over J Law, even though Amy Poehler (Inside Out) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma) would have been better, but less plausible, choices) and Atomic Blonde (Over Streep).

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

The story isn't cheapened. You re just mad that it's not the exact story you thought they were telling. I loved the ending.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTr

Awful

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Just like Young Adult, the ending of this is going to prove divisive, even though it deepens the character of Marlo and turns the story into something completely different and somewhat more interesting. Theron's performance is the kind of transformative, vanity-free work that should ensure her an Oscar nomination, but since Oscar voters have such short attention spans, it's not going to happen unless they time the home video release just right (and even then...).

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

It's criminal that she wasn't nominated for Young Adult. To me, her performance was as good as Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine. And I do agree with another reader here that she can go kick-ass action flicks just as well as dramas.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I hope she does some comedies in the near future though

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I'm another viewer who thought the third act was ridiculous. I love Young Adult, though.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I saw Tully this weekend, and you are right.

I take Charlize Theron too much for granted. When she gives another great performance, I say, yes, she's great, I love her. That doesn't give her nearly enough credit for the depth and breadth of her body of work.

SPOILER:
(and only an opinion)

Thinking about the movie afterwards, I thought the biggest fantasy was not the one surrounding Tully, but thinking that the husband would change.

In neglectful family and relationship situations, one of our most cherished hopes is that a crisis happening to the neglected person will wake up the neglectful people, who will change their attitudes and behaviour permanently.

That's why we have so many stories and narratives where this hope is realized. In real life, well .... it is a hope.

I did like this movie a lot, though. Charlize is amazing. The look of love she gives her children is so real.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Charlize's acting genius will always be underrated due to her beauty. Blessing as well as a curse. So is life.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

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