Brand new, star-studded film from “Juno” director fails to deliver
The Santa Clara
May 10, 2018
There is a wise saying, often heard on airplanes, that you should secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.
In his latest film, “Tully,” director Jason Reitman captivates his audience in much the same way as he did with “Juno”—emphasizing the stress of motherhood. Charlize Theron plays an overwhelmed mother named Marlo who is pregnant with her third child at 40 years old. One of Marlo’s daughters, nine-yearold Sarah (Lia Frankland), is starting to feel insecure and shy.
Marlo knows that this is a necessary part of growing up, but also knows, as she remarks to another character: “It doesn’t get any easier for girls.” Her son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), is starting to act out in school—his school principal calls it “quirky.” The proverbial plane is losing altitude. Marlo, a good mom, tries desperately to help her kids. But there is only so much she can do with another baby due any day—she is physically exhausted, mentally strained and by the time her baby arrives, has sunk into postpartum depression. Marlo has a darkness behind her eyes and stretch marks everywhere—her daughter, Sarah, asks, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” It is around this time that Marlo realizes her own oxygen mask is still hanging above her head.
Here, Reitman challenges the ideal of a perfect mother, the kind you see on old TV shows. The only problem is I think he would be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees with the main themes of “Tully.” We immediately recognize the plight of Marlo, because suburban ennui is near canonical in modern American culture—everyone’s seen “Desperate Housewives,” right? “Tully” attempts to save face by giving the audience real, nicely detailed characters to balance out the conceptual backdrop. The foil to Marlo’s struggle, for one, is her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Craig seems to have his life in order. His wife shows no signs of distress with their three kids—their secret is a night nanny, someone to take care of the young children at night so the parents can get their rest.
Marlo and her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), see the night nanny as a deal with the devil. It’s a choice between the nurturing power of sleep, or the traditional values of rearing your own children.
Sleep is the beginning and end of every day for every person, yet so rarely does one stop and truly appreciate its power. You don’t plan to sleep, you fall asleep. In fact, you only really think about sleep when you’re deprived of it. Marlo and Drew have their doubts about hiring extra help—mostly Drew, since his parenting role is relegated to post-work. “Tully” seems to ask whether the job of “parent” can be outsourced to a stranger—that question, however, is mostly avoided over the course of the film.
Marlo cracks and hires the titular night nanny, Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis. After her first time meeting Marlo, Tully muses that by the time Marlo wakes up, the baby will be a different being—we all grow in our sleep, but with babies these changes are much more significant. At this point the film begins to grapple with great, timeless questions, regarding nature versus nurture, feminine friendship, the psyche of a mother and much more. It is disappointing, then, that the script can’t keep up with the rest of “Tully.”
A lot of great questions are asked in “Tully,” but none are sufficiently explored. Little dynamics arise throughout the film that could lend themselves to some excellent filmmaking, but time and time again Reitman and Cody skirt around these questions for more simplistic character sketches—montages, one-liners and other cinematic clichés are applied liberally to raw parts of the screenplay, essentially maiming what could be impactful sequences.
It is highly suggested that Jonah is on the spectrum, which is where the start of the film’s troubles begin. A key scene early on shows a meeting between Marlo and Jonah’s principal, who is explaining to Marlo that Jonah is to be “dismissed” from kindergarten—not “expelled,” because that would be a punishment—due to his special needs. The idea that a principal of a kindergarten calling autism a “quirk” in 2018 is inconceivable, and I can’t help but be taken out of the film when glaring flaws in the script appear—additionally, Marlo’s obvious postpartum depression is oddly overlooked by everyone in her life, including her own ostensibly caring husband.
The dialogue is functional, but when the characters try to be touching, sarcastic or bold, their lines usually fall unfortunately flat. “Tully” is a movie you can’t help but root for, but the pessimistic sarcasm throughout it is mismatched from the tone of the rest of the film.
Theron, for her part, puts on an impassioned, believable performance, as does the more frenetic Davis—their yin-yang contrast is a high-point in the film, as is the masculine insecurity of Duplass and Livingston’s interplay.
“Tully” ends with another interesting directorial flair, one that clarifies some of the more surreal sequences earlier in the film but is deeply unsatisfying nonetheless. After a thoughtprovoking twist, “Tully” sputters to a non-conclusion before the credits roll—is that it? There’s certainly components here for a fine film, but the trite screenplay of “Truly” refuses to let you really sink into the characters or plot.
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