Deep Focus: Tully
Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s third and by far best collaboration (following 2007’s Juno and 2011’s Young Adult) starts strong and settles into a funky, amiable groove. It’s a lively big-screen sitcom about the bonding of ultra-harried Gen X mother Marlo (Charlize Theron) with super-cool millennial night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis). The movie doesn’t show its stretch marks until it’s two-thirds through. In that way, too, it rhymes with Sully.
Carrying her third child, Marlo wears herself out shepherding her kindergartener Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), whose “atypical behaviors” include caterwauling tantrums, and her semi-shy eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland), who has developed girlish insecurities. Marlo’s good-guy husband Drew (Ron Livingston), no Mister Mom, has settled into the familiar pattern of working himself bone-tired, then collapsing into bed to play video games. While he mows down zombies, his wife executes intricate tasks, such as applying the Wilbarger Protocol (a kind of therapy) to Jonah, brushing his body with a small surgical brush in hopes of relieving the boy’s discomfort and anxiety.
We glean that Marlo suffered complications of some kind after giving birth to Jonah. Her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) cryptically remarks, “I don’t want what happened last time to happen again.” So when Craig and svelte sister-in-law Elyse (Elaine Tan) decide that hiring a night nanny would be the perfect baby gift, Marlo reluctantly gives in, though the concept strikes her as creepy and pretentious. Tully arrives after the older kids are tucked in and leaves by break of day. She wins Marlo over because her style of nannying means helping the newborn baby and the mother by any means necessary. Tully cleans, makes cupcakes, and leads Marlo into conversations that function as talk therapy. She’s a full-service caregiver, in ways that ultimately discomfit the audience and maybe Tully herself.
When I call Tully a big-screen sitcom, I mean it mostly with affection. Most of the film zings right along with bright dialogue, a light, resilient tone, and acute perceptions of status and euphemism within the suburban middle class. At the prestigious St. Vitus Elementary School (apt, amusing title), the principal, Laurie (Gameela Wright), cheerfully advises Marlo to hire a full-time aide to help Jonah through the school day, oblivious to the expense. Laurie refers to Jonah as “quirky”—as if he were “a ukulele,” Marlo later grumbles. When Laurie says St. Vitus “loves” Marlo’s “family,” she is partly referring to Marlo’s brother, who donated tons of money to the school.
Feminist to the bone, Tully is equally observant and unassuming. But these qualities won’t protect it from controversy. Some activists for awareness of post-partum depression and psychosis are already saying the film should contain trigger warnings and possibly even a final act in which Marlo seeks professional help after her time with Tully has run its course. I side with Cody: “The movie is actually about [Marlo’s] lack of treatment,” she told The New York Times. “Sometimes what you’re desperate is for someone to say: ‘Hey, I actually see what’s going on here. This is serious, we need to deal with it and there’s a name for it.’ And Marlo doesn’t get that comfort in this film. Because the film is meant to be uncomfortable.”
I disagree with Cody only about how she gets there. If Tully were a complete aesthetic success instead of an entertaining, schizoid pop creation, it might use comedy to expand or deepen Marlo’s character, and not resort, at the anti-climax, to melodramatic trickery. But the film deserves credit for how nimbly it establishes an intriguing premise, explores it, and riffs on it. The movie manages to “jump the shark” within a 95-minute running time, so when everything goes awry you don’t mind as much as you would if the bad memories lingered on.
Brisk and authoritative, Davis’s Tully has been compared to Mary Poppins, but to me she’s more like a sexy version of Al Capp’s shmoos, sensing Marlo’s needs and breezily, ecstatically fulfilling them. As the movie goes on, it becomes increasingly and, alas, oppressively clear that she reminds Marlo of her own youth.
I think the film is most engaging as a wish-fulfillment fantasy of women bridging generation gaps. Theron gained 50 pounds to play Marlo, who feels she has been sagging inside and out. Tully becomes an inspiration for her. She emerges on the stage of Marlo’s weathered, mid-century split-level with face fresh, midriff toned (and bared), and eyes asparkle, sans roots or affiliations. She spouts medical and scientific knowledge as well as highbrow literary references (17th-century English diarist Samuel Pepys) as if creating a holistic body of knowledge out of Internet searches. Marlo rues that her human resources job has nothing to do with her degree in English lit; Drew, at least, has an obscurely brainy, low-paying analytic gig.
Marlo enjoys bonding and jousting with her. When Marlo complains that she finds merely getting dressed “so exhausting,” Tully tells her that’s the cost of “living on a planet with a short solar day, though Jupiter’s is even shorter.” Marlo replies, “You’re like a bunch of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.” Cody’s repartee here is oddball, original, and organic.
The dialogue enables these actresses to connect and toy with each other, body and soul. Davis turns Tully into a gale of fresh air. She’s sprightly and accessible but not exactly transparent, especially when Marlo asks her what she does during the day. Storm clouds hang figuratively over Marlo’s head, as they did literally over another Al Capp cartoon figure, Joe Btfsplk. (The film’s effervescence and its semi-satiric treatment of chaos kept comic-strip references piling into my head.) Theron’s intelligence and depth as a performer, along with her keen wit and animal force, turn Marlo into a formidable character, even when she gives in to inertia. Theron’s face retains its expressive beauty as Marlo struggles to get her post-birth body back into shape. Her sane, uninhibited acting brings home the heroic sacrifices mothers routinely make for their children.
Reitman, a solid naturalistic moviemaker, can’t sustain this story’s flirtation with magical realism and dream imagery (we get some unexceptional mermaid shots). Understandably, he fails to make the film persuasive when Cody’s script devolves into preparation for the story’s giant turnaround. I found it hard to comprehend the filmmakers’ intentions when they set up a brief sex scene with Marlo, Tully, and Drew; the bit is too awkward and clipped to be fascinating or mischievous. Not even the great Livingston can flesh out his mostly checked-out character, and, in general, neither Reitman nor Cody imbues the supporting roles with a satisfying emotional heft.
Reitman does succeed at showcasing the sympathetic imagination and flesh impact of his two stars in authentic scenes of domestic mess and cleanup. And Cody attains new legitimacy and veracity as a writer. Cody’s breakthrough film, Juno, shared a name with the classical divinity who took special care of women, but its story about a pregnant teenager was unbearably shallow and arch, and the dialogue made my teeth ache with its one-and-a-half-liners, all staccato taunts and declarations. (Young Adult was just hit-or-miss.) The deity watching over Tully is clearly Vesta, protector of home and hearth. The movie’s visual and verbal language is pungent and specific, and its central character proves to be arresting and rounded up to the bittersweet end.
In popular culture and academics, Roseanne Barr has been taken as the last word on motherhood in a hand-to-mouth middle-class world. In a 30-second web search, I found two scholarly papers about Barr sporting the exact same title: “Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess.” The pop culture gods will have to make some space in that category for the heroine of Tully. Pace the Roseanne reboot, in 2018, Charlize Theron’s Marlo, crazed and battered but unbowed, is the true domestic goddess.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a contributor to the Criterion Collection.