Tully movie review: 'attempts a daring storytelling trick and pretty much gets away with it'
Films of the Week: Tully (15A, 96mins) ****
Motherhood's a joy, right? It is in Hollywood, where kids sparkle winningly and parents click their heels as they skip around the kitchen rustling up elaborate pre-school breakfasts and sharing urbane dialectics with their five-year-olds. In Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's Tully, however, parenthood is a relentless slog, an endlessly demanding task for which no glib platitudes can prepare you. Charlize Theron's Marlo is the miner at this particular coalface, a mother of two who's heavily pregnant with her third and doesn't seem entirely thrilled about it.
She's tired, beaten down, worried about her sensitive daughter, Emmy, and more worried still about her son, Jonah, who has behavioural problems and may soon be ejected from his school. Marlo quietly dreads her impending labour, but her distracted, affable husband Drew (Ron Livingston) seems to be taking it all in his stride. Easy for him, you might say: Drew won't have to squeeze out the bowling ball. He's away on business a lot and doesn't seem to be doing his share of the parenting.
On the eve of the baby's arrival, Marlo's smug and annoyingly wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers a helping hand: he's bought her the gift of a night nanny, someone to come in and feed and tend to the infant in the wee small hours so she can recover and sleep. Initially, Marlo resents the hell out of this gesture, which she views as a slur on her motherhood, so she shuns the gift and tries to go it alone. But in a cleverly orchestrated sequence, we watch her slowly wilt as a gruelling regime of school runs, night feeds, milk-expressing and general sleeplessness reduces her to a quivering wreck.
Though Drew seems oblivious to this and pats his kids on the head after he comes in from work before disappearing upstairs to play computer games, Marlo is becoming dangerously depressed. Eventually, she relents, accepts her limits and calls the night nanny. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) breezes in like a waft of lavender: she's young, carefree, hippyish, annoyingly wise. She's also brilliant with the baby and as Marlo starts to catch up on her sleep and, as she puts it, "see colours" again, she and the night nanny begin to bond.
They share a love of bourbon and 90s rock music, and though Marlo finds Tully's wide-eyed stare a bit intrusive at first, the younger woman soon teaches her how to relax. And when Marlo confesses that she and Drew haven't had sex in many months, Tully comes up with a novel and shocking remedy. All is going swimmingly until Tully suggests a night on the tiles in Brooklyn, during which things swing wildly out of hand.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have worked together before, most memorably on Juno, their brilliant 2007 comedy charting the travails of a teenage mother, but also on Young Adult (2011), which starred Charlize Theron as a chronically immature writer who returns to her home town in search of her long lost youth. That clever film was spoilt by a messy ending, but Tully is a more even and ambitious production, which attempts a daring storytelling trick which I won't go into here, and pretty much gets away with it.
The slog of motherhood is memorably laid bare by clever writing and the fearless honesty of Theron's performance. She gained 50lbs, we are told, in the service of veracity, and looks suitably physically devastated as she staggers around in the aftermath of her third birth. This is a wise film, not an angry one, and the uselessness of Marlo's husband is not overdone: he's a thoughtless man, not a bad one, who assumes his wife can handle everything and simply doesn't notice that she's struggling.
Theron and Davis make a winning double act, and the older woman is touchingly awestruck by the younger one's confidence, fearlessness and especially her slimness. They seem simultaneously close and distant, separated by experiences mutually incommunicable. What Marlo knows, and Tully doesn't, is that parenthood changes you, destroys the person you used to be, picks apart your personality and reassembles it. Mostly you feel fine about that, but not always.
Films coming soon...
Entebbe (Rosamund Pike, Daniel Bruhl); Life Of The Party (Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Jaqui Weaver); Breaking In (Gabrielle Union, Christa Miller); Redoubtable (Louis Garrel, Stacy Martin, Berenice Bejo); Sherlock Gnomes (James McAvoy, Emily Blunt).