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Mackenzie Davis watches over Charlize Theron and her baby in "Tully."

Back in 2011, Jason Reitman was coming off a hellacious tear that included Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult, engaging and funny comedies with intelligent humor and good use of both unheralded actors and A-list stars. It seemed like he could do no wrong, but wrong is exactly where he went with his unintentionally funny dramedy Labor Day and then his joylessly scolding Men, Women & Children. He looked headed for a flameout. Well, the flame is back on with his funny, unvarnished portrait of motherhood Tully. Maybe he needed to reunite with screenwriter Diablo Cody, or maybe both of them needed their real-life experience as parents to make this film. Whatever it is, this comedy glows with the same warmth and luminescence as his earlier movies, and I can’t tell you how good it is to have him back.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo Monroe, who has just given birth to her unplanned third child. She’s suffering from postpartum depression, and it is bad. She’s so exhausted that when her 5-year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) spills his drink on her at the dinner table, she simply takes off her shirt without getting up, prompting her 8-year-old daughter to ask, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” With the family under financial strain, her husband (Ron Livingston) must focus on his corporate job, so most of the child-rearing burden falls on her. “I want my sister back,” says her brother (Mark Duplass). “These last few years, it’s like a match has been snuffed out.”

Just when Marlo’s rope has frayed to its tiniest thread, she takes advantage of her brother’s gift and calls a “night nanny” who comes in and looks after the baby so the parents can sleep. Her name is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and though she’s only 26, she’s infinitely calm, patient, and wise. Not only does she take impeccable care of the infant, she also listens indulgently to Marlo’s frustrations, tidies up the house, bakes cupcakes, mixes a mean sangria, and drops tidbits of astronomy, English lit, and marine biology into her conversation.

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She brings Marlo back to her old youthful self, and does it with the air of someone about to burst into song while cartoon birds flutter around her head. I don’t even have any kids, and I want a Tully for my house.

Reitman’s directing skills come back into focus with the sharp-edged montages early on depicting Marlo’s lonely, sleep-deprived life taking care of the baby girl as well as her other kids. There’s a harrowing bit when Jonah throws a screaming tantrum in a car because his mom hasn’t parked in her usual lot at school, which leads to more screaming from his sister and eventually Marlo. The boy’s undiagnosed behavioral problems get him kicked out of kindergarten, and Marlo finally snaps at a school administrator (Gameela Wright) who becomes the umpteenth person to call the boy “quirky”: “He’s a kid, not a fucking ukulele! Why don’t you say it? My kid’s retarded, and you hate him.” Even that spectacular set piece by Cody is outdone by Tully’s great monologue about the things that Marlo does for her family, and it’s the best defense I’ve ever heard of boring domestic suburban parenthood, from a movie or any other source.

Theron, packing more than 40 extra pounds of the character’s un-lost pregnancy weight, is customarily good as the ragged housewife at a breaking point, but she’s well-matched by Davis. Even if you’ve seen her star in TV’s Halt and Catch Fire or in such different films as Always Shine and the upcoming Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town, you may still be taken aback by her ray-of-sunshine performance here as a person who’s a little too good to be true. This tall Canadian actress is dazzling and vivid in everything she does, and this shows that she should be headlining her own movies.

I sniffed out the big climactic revelation, but it’s still effective, not least because its implications are so terrifying. I could have done without the mermaid motif that Reitman inserts to bolster it, but it’s grimly funny that Marlo is in the worst shape just when it seems like she’s much better. That leads to a great, anguished monologue by Livingston, as he realizes how far he’s let things slip as a husband. Tully stops just short of tragedy and becomes a testament to Marlo’s ability to keep in touch with her youthful spontaneity and how it pulls her through her toughest times. Compared to sanitized Hollywood depictions of motherhood, this is messy and daring in all sorts of ways, and it’s the nicest early Mother’s Day present we could wish for.

Tully

Starring Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. Rated R.

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