Possibly the biggest surprise of 2018 thus far has to be Jason Reitman‘s Tully and not because of the film’s quality. Rather, it is surprising due to just how much it shifts in the second half, jerking dramatically from a pleasant and often funny tone at first before diving into the darkness of mental illness. After two straight poorly reviewed films, Jason Reitman is largely back with Tully as he smartly re-teams with writer Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron who worked alongside him on his last good film, Young Adult. Akin to Cody’s work with Reitman on that film and in the earlier Juno, Tully is an often honest and upfront look at people going through life and what struggles that constitutes. For Marlo (Theron), that life is one of constant stress and sleep deprivation. Her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) is eight years old and not getting any younger. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is described by doctors as being “atypical”, while being prone to outbursts and on the brink of being kicked out of his school for these issues. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a cliche husband who shows up at the end of the day, does the bare minimum with the kids, and then plays video games before bed. Her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) is rich with a wife, a G-wagon, a live-in nanny, and three kids. To make matters worse, Marlo is pregnant and set to burst at any day. By the time the baby is born and she is stressed beyond belief, the young night nanny recommended by her brother comes knocking at the door and in walks Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
One can pretty much read the plot description and tell that this background-less and constantly bubbly young Tully is, well, not real. However, what the film is able to accomplish is showing the internal longing to not just be a good mother, but also that desire to be who she was before she was married and had kids. She loves her kids and her husband, but she would kill to be young again due to how it made her feel. Hence, Marlo imagines a younger version of herself arriving to save the day in the form of Tully. Mackenzie Davis gives a vivacious, bubbly, and hyper performance, one that only serves to underscore the youth and vitality she possesses that Marlo wishes she could tap into one more time. By exploring schizophrenic visions of a younger version of herself helping her with the new baby at night, Marlo even seems to benefit greatly as she feels more rested and relaxed by being able to do the things she has always wanted to do – such as baking cupcakes for Jonah’s class or cleaning – while no longer being on the brink of self-destruction due to being so tired. Yet, it all comes crashing down as turning back the clock was not what she needed to actually heal; rather, it only put her in greater danger.
Expressing this concept is the greatest accomplishment within Tully. Retroactively, it adds a great thematic layer that enables the film to linger in the mind far more than a funny but derivative film would have. Tully presents the struggles of motherhood, but also the need to have a husband contribute. Drew, in doing nothing, winds up only putting Marlo in greater mental and physical danger as she desperately gives every bit of herself in order to take care of Mia and the other two kids. Craig first suggests the night nanny as a gift to Marlo in order to help him “get his sister back”, yet she opts to reject his offer. Instead, she goes at it alone in order to be the best mother she could possibly be. It is a tragic film in this regard, one with a great amount of thematic layers that only begin to reveal themselves once the film ends.
In this way, Tully is a bit of an earworm, working in the mind of the audience for days to come and making it hard to think about much else. However, where it does struggle is in terms of how it presents Drew, how it presents postpartum depression, knowing when to give up the ruse of the first two-thirds of the film, and the tonal changes that prove too jarring. For the former, Drew is able to get off the hook constantly. He is not a bad man by any means, but definitely one guilty of not paying attention to his kids to the point it puts his wife in incredible danger. Drew is also guilty of buying into typical gender role as he fulfills the masculine role of being a provider, whereas Marlo tries to become the good little housewife. Even at the end, Drew has a “come to God” moment where he admits he was wrong about everything, and the film once more mollifies his inadequacies, leaving him as a likable even if disengaged man. There is something to be said about how Tully shows just how impossible these roles are, but the film does seem to trickle into sexism both in how Marlo’s greatest aspirations are to please her husband sexually, bake cupcakes, and clean her home. Meanwhile, Tully herself is constantly objectified with Reitman’s male gaze constantly popping up to sexualize Mackenzie Davis whenever possible.
Furthermore, Tully can never tell when the jig is up. After the audience has already figured it out, the film comes right out and tells the audience that Tully is not real. Between a scene of Marlo’s car going into a lake only to be pulled out by a mermaid version of Tully and the doctor asking Drew, “Does she have a history of mental illness?”, it becomes quite obvious. Yet, the film then doubles down and ties Marlo’s maiden name to the name of the “night nanny”, just in case it was not clear. It seemingly never trusts the audience to be able to comprehend this twist and what it means for the film as a whole. In the process of executing this twist, it also brings on great tonal issues. Striking a nice, charming, and pleasant tone as Tully works miracles with young Mia and as Marlo becomes more like herself, the first two-thirds of this film are never truly great but are always quite good. They possess great charm and honesty about the work it takes to be a mother, a perfect message right before Mother’s Day. The film captures that “same” feeling that each morning offers as one wonders, “Didn’t I just do this?” and yet manages to be consistently rewarding and entertaining.
Once it takes a dark turn beginning from the moment Marlo has Tully sleep with Drew followed by Tully showing up to take Marlo on an impromptu visit to Brooklyn, Tully becomes quite grating. Until then, Tully is cinematic bliss: it is strongly put together with great acting, themes, and comedy. However, it then just turns around and pours that all down the drain, jumping fully into an examination of the dark recesses of the mind of Marlo, akin to a lesser version of the Fight Club twist. It had hinted at it earlier as she had a mental breakdown when she was told Jonah was being dismissed from school and when she makes a “joke” that she is going to kill herself, as well as the aforementioned portions where Tully agrees with whatever Marlo happens to mention. But, the dark turn into drunk driving and child abandonment is a poor representation of postpartum depression as it makes it appear as though it is a form of schizophrenia, while also tossing away its previously positive portrayal of Marlo as a mother.
Tully not only casts aside a positive perception of Marlo – while, largely, leaving Drew’s perception intact – but its multiple tones really clash with one another, leaving the film feeling incoherent, disjointed, and conflicted. Starting off incredibly realistic with its portrayal of motherhood and the issues in marriage when one partner contributes far more than the other, Tully switches into full on fantasy when it comes time to reveal the twist. As Marlo’s car crashes into a lake, she is rescued by Tully who appears as a mermaid. Not only is this is a classic Hollywood way of revealing this with a loud, thrilling moment that runs counter to the rather low-key film that comes before it, but it adds in a bit of fantasy that the film never really shakes off. The film, until then, was not just a great portrayal of motherhood but also a great portrayal of women being friends and helping one another with Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis having great chemistry together as both a comedic and dramatic pairing.
Reitman’s films are often actor’s showcases with Reitman having a very unflashy visual style that always keeps the protagonist in focus and in, at their furthest, medium shots that only further emphasizes their role within the film. As such, this is truly Theron’s film and Davis’ as well. Yet, once one knows the twist, it adds a dark coloring to their bonding as it is not two women palling around but rather a woman running rapidly towards the deep end. Thus, one almost feels guilty for laughing as she bonded with what turns out to be just a younger version of herself. A great twist not only adds a great thematic undercurrent to the film, but it matches the tone of the film. In films with a similar twist such as Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, it works. It does not strip the prior parts of their power, drama, or even emotion. Honestly, The Sixth Sense may be the greatest comparison as it is a film built on a relationship between a child psychiatrist who helps a young boy only for the doctor to be revealed as a ghost. However, the scenes of him helping the young boy still work as the film was already somber and dark, while great healing was accomplished. Though Tully similarly has a “ghost” interacting a woman due to the mental issues she is experiencing, it plays those scenes for comedy at first only to then pull the rug out from the under the audience to say that those scenes were actually quite traumatic for Marlo and the product of her issues. Thus, it is not just an issue that the film tries to – poorly – blend a major fantastical element into a film that tried to be incredibly realistic for an hour-plus, but also in how it strips the film of its comedy and bonding. In trying to surprise the audience and add thematic depth, Tully winds up shooting itself in the foot and undermining two of its best elements.
That said, what does elevate this film and allow it to border on being very good until the final third is that aforementioned authenticity, even if some of it is undermined. Tully is, for the most part, grounded, honest, and built upon the experiences of those involved. As Charlize Theron slumps down in a chair at her dinner table with frozen pizza on the table and after pouring a bag of freshly defrosted peas into a bowl in front of her children as though she were willing up a trough, she is exhausted. Making matters worse, her husband comes in and immediately notes that the kids are on their own and asks if they were allowing “screen time” at the table. This is bad enough, but then Jonah reaches for another slice of pizza and knocks right into his drink, spilling it all over his mom. Ripping off her shirt and just sitting there in a bra with a thousand-yard stare in her eyes, Marlo looks truly defeated. After a long day, things only seem to get worse and she is just not willing to fight anymore, accepting that this is her life now. The typically beautiful and confident Theron is both frumpy and defeated as she sits in this chair, underscoring the way in which motherhood is not a strictly beautiful endeavor and neither is this film. It is a portrait of motherhood, warts and all. As she goes through these terribly exhausting ordeals, has to fight for her son at school, and constantly shuffle them between places for their various commitments, there is no time for mom or her own mental health. The only thing she has is her beloved reality show, Gigolos – which, in a great scene, she downplays her love of to Tully before just going through and explaining the history of all of the gigolos on the show – and yet it is worth it for small little moments that add up to a great amount. As Jonah calms down after a freakout due to the help of a teacher or as he hugs her at the end of the film, telling her how much he loves her, Tully is a film that is unafraid to show just how hard motherhood is and just how terrible it can be to a raise a kid. Yet, it shows that the sacrifice, for many, is worth it due to what they get in return. For this, Tully becomes a truly great film for Mother’s Day and one of the best portrayals of motherhood in a film. All of this may be derivative, but it works.
As a whole, Tully is an incredibly derivative film that blends typical dramedy elements with an equally predictable “it was all in her mind” twist. The former bits are its strongest element due to the honesty they possess and the terrific acting by Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. However, once the film begins slipping towards the latter, it seemingly turns on a heel and ditches everything that made it good. Not only does it become dark and fantastical, but it undermines some of the characterization in the name of poorly exploring postpartum depression. It has some nice comments about coming to terms with one’s life and how raising a child needs to be a team effort, but it is also a film that never truly chooses what it wants to become. Even as I wrote this review, much of the time was spent trying to convince myself to cut it some slack as it does make thematic sense. She wants to fix herself by turning back the clock, but the only thing she needs is her husband to stop playing video games all while her postpartum depression becomes worse. It makes sense and is achingly real. However, making thematic sense does not allow the film to slide for changing so jarringly between tones, leaving Tully feeling disjointed and the first first two-thirds so irrevocably changed that it alters their entire impact and feeling. As such, Tully winds up being a film that is enjoyable yet underwhelming and incredibly disappointing.