Cody/Reitman pairing asks: What's a mother to do?
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.
The arrival of nanny Mackenzie Davis, left, improves things for harried mother Charlize Theron in “Tully.”