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Tully | John McDonald

Tully

May 11, 2018
Tully tries to stare the baby to sleep
Tully tries to stare the baby to sleep

Last time you saw Charlize Theron she was probably looking glamorous in tights and leather. Now, less than a year after her stunning, if slightly ridiculous, appearance as a secret agent in Atomic Blonde, she’s back! As a frumpy, depressed suburban mum.

Theron has added 22 kilos in one of those body transformations that have become part of life for a highly-paid Hollywood actor. You spend months in the gym getting ripped for one role, and then start wolfing down jam donuts and cheesburgers to pile on the kilos for the next movie. Christian Bale has set the gold standard, turning himself into a human skeleton for The Machinist, a musclebound hunk for the Batman movies, and a middle-aged slob for American Hustle.

In Jason Reitman’s Tully, Theron plays Marlo, a woman in her late 30s who is expecting her third child. Middle age is already impacting on Marlo, and this pregnancy is not welcome. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), works long hours and unwinds by playing video games in bed. Her youngest child, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is full of irrational fears and hyperactive personality traits, making him more than a handful. His elder sister, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland), is the introverted type.

It might not have been their intention but Reitman and scriptwriter, Diablo Cody, have made a horror movie about motherhood that is being marketed as a comedy. It follows that familiar pattern of a long, slow accumulation of misery, suddenly relieved by the appearance of a magical, new character who acts as a game changer. From this point most stories take an uplifting turn. Previous grievances are forgotten, nothing but blue skies do we see.

This is not the case with Tully. The uplifting bits are never uplifting enough to overcome our sense that Marlo’s life is fundamentally a form of torture. Perhaps it’s because so much time is spent detailing all those drudgeries and indignities in the first part of the story.

It begins with Marlo and Drew visiting Marlo’s brother, Craig, and wife, Elyse (Mark Duplass and Elaine Tan), who simply glow with health and prosperity. Craig is concerned about Marlo’s pregnancy and general state of exhaustion. He offers to pay for a night nurse who will come and look after the baby in the evening, allowing the mother to get some sleep. The suggestion is anathema to Drew, who doesn’t want to be beholden to his affluent brother-in-law.

When the baby arrives the delivery and post-natal symptoms are nightmarish. Jonah’s school wants him out, Drew is away on a business trip. Marlo becomes progressively more fatigued, irritable and depressed. It’s only after arriving at the brink of despair that she decides to call the night nurse after all. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a vibrant 26-year-old, who acts like a youthful Fairy Godmother. She’s great with the baby, she cleans the house in the middle of the night, and even bakes cupcakes. “I’m like Saudi Arabia,” she says. “I have an energy surplus.”

At first Tully’s exhuberance feels like an affront to Marlo’s sense of her own decline, but she soon warms to the younger woman and looks forward to her nightly visits. As their relationship develops, Marlo confides in Tully, telling her about her problems and disappointments. For Tully, who sees it as her task to look after both baby and mother, restoring Marlo’s happiness becomes priority number one. She even finds an unorthodox way of helping rekindle Marlo and Drew’s dormant sex life.

And yet, as the relationship between the two women deepens and grows, it takes on an air of unreality. Tully is unlike any nurse or baby-sitter one might imagine. She acts as Marlo’s surrogate shrink, drawing out the most intimate confessions and admissions. Meanwhile her own life remains mysterious, known by nothing more than scattered mentions of studies, flatmates and boyfriends. We are left with a lop-sided buddy film in which Marlo is the only fully-developed character. We won’t learn Tully’s secret until the very end.

This may be why the feel-good factor doesn’t fully materialise. We’ve already spent too long feeling bad, empathising with Marlo’s unhappiness. At the very least this puts Tully on a different plane to all those ‘outrageous’ Hollywood comedies that resolve themselves into the most sentimental and cosy endings. The moral of Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, for instance, is that it’s not what you look like, it’s what’s inside that counts. It’s scary to think some viewers might find this thought-provoking.

Tully provides more substantial food for thought but it remains a dissatisfying story. Tully has not provided a lasting solution for Marlo’s problems, merely a brief respite. Indeed, Marlo’s sudden burst of happiness seems less normal than her post-natal depression. Although dopey Drew does appear to become more loving and considerate it’s hard to believe that Marlo’s life is now on track. She may have found her feet again but she’s still standing on a precipice.

Tully
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica, Mark Duplass, Elaine Tan
USA, rated M, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 May, 2018