With Tully, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody collaborate for the third time, following Juno and Young Adult (one of the decade’s best films). Tully is the richest and most mature of their collaborations, anchored again, as in Young Adult, by a searing performance from Charlize Theron. These three bring out the best in one another, and in Tully they push each other to new levels. Theron has been in action heroine of late, and Tully gives her a chance to go back to the kind of grounded drama that made her name twenty years ago. She’s always swung between the two genres, but it feels like it’s been a while since she’s done something as natural as Tully, and with any other actress I’m not sure this film works half so well.
Theron has the kind of intensity that can ground a story as it expands around her, and her performance is perfectly attuned to Cody’s sharp dialogue without making it sound too jokey. For her part, Cody’s trademark wit is on display, but though there are some zingy lines—sharpened by Theron’s tart delivery—this is not the gab-fest of Juno. It’s not so much that Cody has matured as a writer, she’s always been a mature writer, it’s that Tully depends so completely on structure there is less room for flare. Are there some good lines? Yes. Are the characters clearly drawn and tangible? Of course. But Cody can’t embellish too much or it gets in the way of the narrative arc, and Tully is all about that narrative arc.
Rounding out the triumvirate is Reitman, back on form after a couple of less focused, meandering movies (Labor Day and Men, Women & Children). He’s not a flashy director but Reitman knows how to get into real spaces where people actually live and portray them in a way that, while it might not be flattering, is never spiteful or mocking. Here he’s working in a middle-class suburb of New York, where Marlo and her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston, playing a very Ron Livingston character), are slightly overwhelmed by everything: they have two kids, one with emerging special needs, and a baby on the way, and their lives have devolved to rote routine.
Tully is a parenthood story, which plays entirely differently to parents and non-parents. As a non-parent, I enjoy Tully academically, but it doesn’t resonate for me the way it can with parents. I have spoken with some parents who have VERY STRONG FEELINGS about this film, so it’s doing something right, it’s just not necessarily equally interesting to everyone. I can only assume this is an accurate portrayal of motherhood—Marlo is exhausted, Drew is oblivious but not unkind, and when Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, playing a very Mark Duplass character) offers the services of a night nurse as a gift, Marlo can’t help but feel slighted, even though she knows he means well.
The night nurse in question is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who comes to Marlo’s home every night to help with the baby. Davis and Theron are great together, and the spirited, youthful Tully reminds Marlo of her pre-family heyday and slowly brings some light back to Marlo’s eyes, giving an outlet to the inner life Marlo has lost in her family. They even end up back in Marlo’s old Brooklyn stomping grounds, which does not go the way typical nanny narratives do.
Once Tully enters the film things start to twist and turn in the way Reitman & Cody films can. It doesn’t become the mortification factory of Young Adult, but Tully goes in its own direction in such a way that you will either love it or hate it. Reitman & Cody films seemed designed to provoke opinion, which Tully does with a bolder stroke than either of their previous films. It’s worth watching just for Theron’s performance and to see how it unfolds, but I can’t promise it will be equally fascinating to everyone.