For a review of “Tully,”
Screenwriter Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her debut screenplay for “Juno,” directed by Jason Reitman, and firmly established her unique voice — sarcastic, smart and referential, a singular blend of self-deprecation and superiority. With Reitman, Cody has explored the outer ranges and growth of this voice across the various stages of life, from the young, snarky pregnant teen Juno, to the single, embittered novelist returning to her hometown in “Young Adult,” and now to an exhausted, middle-aged mother in “Tully.”
Charlize Theron, who delivered the barbs of “Young Adult” with such flair, completes the artistic trifecta with Reitman and Cody once again in “Tully,” playing Marlo, the heavily pregnant mother of two just trying to get through the day intact. Already frazzled, things are looking bleak for the arrival of her third child, with her troubled kindergartner Jonah, her passive husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), and ostentatiously wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). Marlo gets through the day with a forward-facing smile that turns into a derisive sneer behind closed doors, but that careful balance is about to be thrown entirely off.
Craig’s baby gift to her, presented in his home tiki bar, is the services of a night nanny, which Marlo rebuffs. She claims she doesn’t want a stranger bonding with her newborn in the middle of the night, but the cycle of feeding, pumping, diapering and homemaking (frozen pizza and microwaved broccoli) is brutally punishing. After a particularly rough day dealing with school administration, who’d like the family to hire an aide for Jonah, she cracks and digs up the number.
Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the nanny, arrives on her doorstep at night, a brighteyed font of girlish awe and wonder, spouting fun facts and positive vibes, sporting a taut, 20-something body, taking the baby off her hands, letting Marlo sleep, cleaning the house and baking cupcakes.
“I’m here to take care of you,” she said. “You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole.”
Through Tully, the drowning Marlo works her way to the surface to catch a gasp of air. She’s a drowning woman, and Tully is the mermaid who rescues her from the crushing pressure she’s under. Turns out outsourcing half the maternal duties is the key to happiness and health.
The film explores the taboo of modern culture around the idea of “hired help” — Jonah’s classroom aide, Marlo’s favorite show “Gigolos.” Is there anything wrong with paying for assistance, or does it reveal a crack in the illusion of perfection?
In “Tully” there’s a true sense of flow among the collaborators, despite the dark material. Theron embodies Cody’s voice with ease and aplomb, making clever quips sound organic to her specifically caustic personality. But Cody’s writing is restrained and efficient — it says a lot with a little, suggests but never overexplains. Reitman creates a realistically drab enough world to reflect Marlo’s dark reality, with a cluttered, out-of-date house, editing together montages of endless feedings and terrifying dream sequences and hallucinations. The film looks exactly like the inside of Marlo’s mind, just as her exterior appearance reflects her internal struggle.
“Tully” slowly reveals itself to the audience as a far more psychologically complex tale than simply “woman hires a nanny.” Marlo is struggling with her identity as a mother, with the idea of normalcy as a gift to her children bumping up against the struggling mundanity of her suburban life. It’s an emotionally deep yet concise rumination on the nature of modern motherhood, on the inherently false premise of doing it all, of having it all and making it look good. “Tully” shatters that notion, presenting motherhood in all its gross and glorious struggle, and asserts the idea that we all need a little help sometimes, in whatever form that takes.
“Tully,” a Focus Features release, is rated R for language and some sexuality/ nudity. Running time: 96 minutes.
The notion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive and soft-spoken Supreme Court justice, as a judicial “rock star” — at least in the eyes of progressives who love her sharply worded dissents to opinions rendered by the increasingly conservative court — may seem a strange one. But the lively and thorough profile painted of her by the documentary “RBG,” in which she is described in just those terms, makes a persuasive argument for that characterization. Now 85, Ginsburg is viewed by liberals, anxious about her advanced age and the rightward drift of the court, as a champion of the left, a bastion of resistance whose absence will be a loss for progress.
Ginsburg, for her part, says she has no immediate plans to retire. And, when asked whether she regrets not having stepped down while President Barack Obama still had the chance to nominate a replacement, she says only that she has always believed that she should stay on as long as she is able. And is she able? What about the infamous footage of her seeming to drift off during the 2015 State of the Union address?
Cue the shots of Ginsburg doing push-ups.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West mark the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s high court confirmation hearing by including excerpts from that 1993 Senate grilling, along with snippets of a 2017 panel discussion moderated by Nina Totenberg of NPR and more recent interviews. These rather conventional documentary components are supplemented by talkinghead interviews with colleagues and friends, footage of her working out with her personal trainer and, most interestingly, archival audio from some of the cases that Ginsburg argued, as an attorney, before the Supreme Court.
Madame Justice, of course, would probably politely but firmly dispute that she is, in any way, an icon of cool, as she does while watching — on camera, for the first time — Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her on SNL. Giggling adorably at the actress’s “Weekend Update” impression as the trash-talking “Notorious RBG,” Ginsburg admits to the skit being very funny, even as she takes pains to point out that she is, in real life, absolutely nothing like that.
“I tend to be rather sober,” she said, with characteristic understatement, noting that her personality is in sharp contrast to the more jocular nature of her late husband, Marty (and even some of her seemingly staid colleagues).
Despite her biting legal writing, she comes across, on camera, as unfailingly mildmannered, decorous and polite, especially when the film explores her rather unlikely friendship, based on a shared love of opera, with her late conservative colleague Antonin Scalia.
Rather than focusing on personality, however, the bulk of “RBG” has to do with its subject’s lifelong fight against gender discrimination — a fight pressed over many years, many cases and, in most instances, delivering only incremental change. One of Ginsburg’s early milestones as a litigator was a 1973 appearance before the Supreme Court in which Ginsburg argued, ironically, not on behalf of a woman, but a man: Air Force Lieutenant Sharron Frontiero had sought the same spousal benefits — for her husband — as a male servicemember would get. By striking this strategic blow for men’s rights, Ginsburg helped push the door open, if only a crack, to gender-blind policies that would ultimately get women one step closer to a level playing field.
Together with the newly released documentary “The Judge,” a profile of the first woman to be appointed to an Islamic sharia court, “RBG” shines a strong, clear spotlight on female jurists who are out to change the world, one small step at a time.
“RBG,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG for some mature thematic material and strong language. Running time: 97 minutes.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of the documentary “RBG.”