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Josh Reviews Tully

Tully marks the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Their first film together, Juno, got a lot of (well-deserved) acclaim, but I liked their second film — Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt — even more!  It’s been a delight following their collaboration through these three movies, and I hope they continue to make lots more films together!

In Tully, Charlize Theron is again the lead, this time as Marlo, a harried mother of two who, when the film opens, is pregnant with her third child (who was unplanned).  Marlo loves her kids and her husband (Drew, played by Ron Livingston), but she already seems to be at her wit’s end even before entering the gauntlet of the sleepless-nights-filled experience of parenting a newborn.  At the instistence of her brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo eventually relents and hires a night nurse, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and things begin to change for Marlo almost immediately.

Tully is an interesting film. It’s extremely well-made, though I respect the craft on display a little more than I actually loved the film.  Part of that is because of how unflinchingly honest the film is about the unglamorous parts of parenting.  The film spends a great deal of time highlighting the minutae of being a parent of young children, the sort of stuff you seldom see portrayed on screen.  Even for those of us who have not suffered from the sort of emotional distress that Marlo goes through over the course of the film, or had to deal with a child with the needs that her son has, there is a lot to recognize here, and it is painful!  Watching Marlo deal with all of these harries and hassles of day-to-day life, and slowly crumble under the weight of it all, is (intentionally) tough to sit through.  So there are long stretches of Tully that are not exactly a fun watch.  However, my main hesitation about the film is connected to what happens in the final ten-ish minutes.  I will get into this a little later in this review.

First, let’s lavish some praise on the cast.  Mr. Reitman is a great director and Ms. Cody is a grat writer, and there is no question that these two have an electric alchemy.  They seem to balance each other’s strengths.  Each of their three collaborations has had a distinct energy and tone.  But for me, when Tully really sings it is because of the terrific cast.

Charlize Theron once again demonstrates that she is a fantastic actress.  (Those of us who saw Young Adult and Mad Max: Fury Road, among many other great performances by Ms. Theron, already know this well.)  Look at how Ms. Theron uses every movement of her body in this film — how she carries heself, how she sits, how she walks — to show us everything we need to know about what Marlo is going through.  Even without any dialogue, this performance would have told us the story.  Even more impressive is the way that Ms. Theron is able to thread the difficult needle of showing us this put-upon woman without turning her into a shrew.  Ms. Theron allows Marlo to be painfully fallible and ill-tempered, while also always showing us that Marlo cares about her family and is trying her best. This character could have been a cartoon, but Ms. Theron always keeps her performance (brutally, painfully) real.

Mackenzie Davis is a delight as Tully, a young woman who I have read described as a “Millennial Mary Poppins,” and that is a solid description.  This character could have gone wrong in so many ways — she could have been insufferable or silly — but Ms. Davis allows Tully to be the almost-angel that Marlo needs (and sees he as), while keeping her believable as a real person.  Equally important, Ms Davis and Ms. Theron have great chemistry, and they completely hooked me into the friendship the two form with one another.

I have been a forever Ron Livingston fan ever since the one-two punch of Office Space and Band of Brothers (two VERY different roles, and yet Mr. Livingston is so great in both!!), and he shines as Marlo’s husband Drew.  Mr. Livingston imbues Drew with a lot of humanity, and yet his performace is enigmatic enough to allows for audience-members to view him in many different lights.  Is Drew a jerk and neglectful?  Is he a good, sweet guy, who is just as overwhelmed and overburdened as Marlo is and trying to do his best?  Or somewhere in between?  This is great writing brought to life by a great performer.  Like most actual people, Drew isn’t all good and he isn’t all bad.  Watching Tully, I viewed Drew with a little more sympathy than I have seen some other reviewers respond to him, and yet I cringed every time they cut to Drew playing video-games in bed rather than interacting with Marlo or his kids.

Mark Duplass is a great director but I always love seeing him act as well, and he’s geat here as Marlo’s brother Craig.  (Curiously, Mr. Duplass looks so much like Mr. Livingston on screen here that early in the film I got confused and thought for a minute that maybe Craig was supposed to be Drew’s brother, rather than Marlo’s!)

Before I discuss the film’s closing section, which left me somewhat unsettled, let me encourage anyone who has not seen Tully and doesn’t want to be DPOILED to stop reading here.

Throughout Tully’s run-time, I found myself wondering what type of film this was going to be.  Would this be an uplifting film or a tragic one?  Would this be a film about the travails of an overworked mom?  A story about an unlikely female friendship?  Or was something else lurking around the corner?  There was something subtly “off” about the film that kept me on my toes.

And, in the end, a big twist did arrive, as we learn that Marlo is suffering from a terrible mental illness, perhaps connected to or exacerbated by her postpartum depression, and that Tully was all in her mind, a sort-of vision of her younger self who she felt was lost forever.  I did not love that twist.  Outside of Fight Club (which was two decades ago), I have generally found this plot twist of the “character who you thought was real but was actually imaginary” to be unconvincing.  (Don’t get me started on A Beautiful Mind…)  I generally feel that this twist undermines what has gone before, and makes me feel that I have wasted my time watching this story featuring a character who wasn’t real.

Mr. Reitman and Mr. Cody were clearly hoping to make a statement about postpartum depression, and I applaud them for that.  But I felt this twist wound up making light of mental illness.  In Tully’s final scene on-screen with Marlo, she says that she was just there to help Marlo through the danger zone, and it feels like the film wants us to feel that, indeed, Marlo has come through her postpartum danger zone and is OK now.  But, wow, Tully WAS the danger zone!  And I don’t feel like the film, or Marlo herself, ever acknowledges just how sick she was/is.  We don’t see Marlo in treatment at the end of the movie.  We don’t see her and/or Drew grappling together with the reality of her illness.  We just see her back at home and the two of them making school lunches together in the sunlight.  It feels like way too easy an ending relative to the weight of the incredible delusions that Marlo had apparently been suffering from throughout the film.  True mental illness isn’t solved that easily.

So that ending left me unsettled, and uncertain what this film was trying to say.  Postpartum depression is a real thing, but Marlo’s creation of an imaginary friend feels like movie fantasy to me.  Perhaps some women who have suffered from postpartum depression might disagree.  (Online reaction seems to be split.) For me, I liked Tully when it was a character study of a human mom trying to keep her head about water.  When the movie stepped into M. Night Shyamalan twist ending territory, though, it stumbled.

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