Cody/Reit­man pair­ing asks: What's a mother to do?

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

We live many lives within the one we’ve got. When Chicago-born Di­ablo Cody wrote “Juno,” she imag­ined a charmed teenage preg­nancy, the story fo­cus­ing on a young wo­man’s anx­i­eties and de­fense mech­a­nisms but pre­dom­i­nantly, buoy­antly comic in tone. As fi­nessed by direc­tor Ja­son Reit­man, the happy end­ing en­sured the film’s pop­u­lar­ity and Cody’s Os­car. The hero­ine ended up with ev­ery­thing she needed. By the end, the au­di­ence knew she’d be fine.

“Fine” is rel­a­tive, though. While in no way a se­quel, “Tully” is “Juno” 11 years later and darker. Cody, who has worked steadily in film and tele­vi­sion in the in­terim, has cre­ated a con­flicted mother of three played with fierce, fraz­zled com­mit­ment by Char­l­ize Theron. This is the third pair­ing of Cody and Reit­man; their sec­ond, “Young Adult,” also starred Theron. These three speak the same sto­ry­telling lan­guage, one of wry sin­cer­ity un­der­cut by melan­choly. At its spiky, in­ter­mit­tent best, “Tully” is the best work Cody has done in the con­ven­tional fea­ture for­mat since “Juno.”

And yet I’m all over the place on it. Partly it’s be­cause of a pri­mary plot de­vel­op­ment that must re­main a se­cret. Cody’s script keeps the au­di­ence a lit­tle wob­bly. Her story takes place in that pe­cu­liar, sleep-de­prived sub­urb known as New­born Heights.

Marlo (Theron) lives life in a blender set to medium. She’s a blur of breast­pump­ing, hall­way-run­ning, break­fast-mak­ing. She’s in a mar­i­tal rut co­in­cid­ing with a heavy parental load. Hus­band Drew (Ron Liv­ingston) is af­fa­ble and ca­su­ally MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage and some sex­u­al­ity/ nu­dity) Run­ning time: 1:36 Opened: Thurs­day evening sup­port­ive and mod­er­ately present as a do­mes­tic part­ner, but he comes and goes, and when he’s home in bed, he’s usu­ally gam­ing.

Marlo’s son Jonah (Asher Miles Fal­lica) has some be­hav­ior is­sues, as yet un­di­ag­nosed, at least prop­erly, and Marlo has just about had it with ev­ery­one from Jonah’s school la­bel­ing her boy as “quirky.” (The di­a­logue ad­dress­ing this sore spot sounds like Cody, speak­ing in code, nail­ing ev­ery­one who said the same thing about “Juno.”) Direc­tor Reit­man jacks up the ten­sion in the early scenes of sadly or­di­nary chaos in “Tully.”

And then, like magic: re­lief. Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Du­plass) gifts her a “night nanny,” a part-time noc­tur­nal care­giver af­ford­ing the weary mother some peace, rest and oc­ca­sional mar­i­tal sex. The minute Tully, played by Macken­zie Davis, shows up at Marlo’s door, it’s like they’ve known each other for years. Tully is in­tu­itive, sage be­yond mid-20s. And fun. “Tully” takes this new- found friend­ship in in­creas­ingly sur­pris­ing di­rec­tions.

Some, I sus­pect, will love where it goes. Some, we know al­ready, have not, es­pe­cially be­cause (I’ll be as care­ful as I can here, spoiler-wise) Cody ex­plores some av­enues of post-par­tum de­pres­sion that cross the bor­der into some­thing else. Reit­man’s touch is res­o­lutely un­flashy, though just as of­ten it’s in­dis­tinct, and his cam­era never set­tles on a par­tic­u­lar set of vis­ual strate­gies.

The ac­tors com­pli­cate “Tully” in a valu­able way. Theron’s barely con­tained streak of anger gives Marlo se­ri­ous un­pre­dictabil­ity; the movie starts with her los­ing it over small things as well as large things, suf­fer­ing no fools gladly, meet­ing and then top­ping her chal­leng­ing son’s be­hav­ior with her own. In trailer form, “Tully” looks like a re­fresh­ingly re­lat­able sce­nario cou­pled with a fairy-tale el­e­ment of the nanny/spir­i­tual ad­viser/ mom-whisperer em­bod­ied by Davis. In fact, the movie’s roughly 50 per­cent truth­ful and au­then­tic, and 50 per­cent ginned-up con­trivance.

I’m mixed. See what you think of it. That’s usu­ally the right course of ac­tion.

KIM­BERLY FRENCH/FO­CUS FEA­TURES

The ar­rival of nanny Macken­zie Davis, left, im­proves things for har­ried mother Char­l­ize Theron in “Tully.”

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