by Joe Hammerschmidt
There’s no secret to the ideal that when creative talents unite for a like-minded purpose, the goal is not only acheived but often in strongest form. Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody, and Oscar-losing (maybe someday) director Jason Reitman make their third attempt at biting into the heart of humanity with a darkly comic spin on motherhood and its consequences. And in bringing back their lead from Young Adult, fellow Oscar alumnus Charlize Theron, the trio prove growing up doesn’t always equal a complete loss of innocence or optimism, even in times of high parental stress.
Marlo is your standard, overworked American mother, though of course Theron delivers her own personal flair to the character, to the point where one could be convinced we’re seeing the real Charlize. With two young kids (one facing some minor learning eccentricities), a workaholic husband (Ron Livingston), and a third soon on the way, sleep deprivation is nothing short of a reality for the mom. Her more successful brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and wife Elyse (Elaine Tam) appears to have the solution: an overnight nanny, going by the name of Tully (Mackenzie Davis). At first, Marlo is hesitant, declining the offer until reaching a pure moment of desperation.
The way Marlo encounters with this modern-day, ground-floor Mary Poppins may have been undersold, and a trifle misleading in the trailers. Without giving too much away from the plot, their bond is nothing short of honest, tense, even a little heartbreaking at points. Even without having experienced Juno or Young Adult ahead of screening this later third of an unofficial trilogy last week, Reitman and Cody appear to have a genuine knack for approaching adult relationships with a critical edge, unrelenting in a desire to stay true to their own experiences and capturing their respective innocence as it wanes with age. Needless to say, it’s all still heavily sugarcoated to keep the mood light and fluffy; how one feels for the leads is surprisingly unaffected, only magnified as the runtime ticks forward.
Amid the ironic humor, even the tense or relatable moments can be sold in a comical package to itemize the passage of time. A sequence of multiple sleepless nights between Marlo and the newborn, set to a remix of Rufus Wainwright’s “Tiergarten” and precisely edited by Stefan Grube (10 Cloverfield Lane) is perhaps the most essential scene in the film, if only to capture the understated importance of a maddening routine in the everyday.
What should not be understated is Theron’s motherly influence championing into another masterwork performance, up there with Furiosa and Lorraine Broughton. There’s still a little time left this decade, yet those three may perhaps stay the ones which stand out. Just like her character, Theron naturally grows confident in her common quest for renewal to peace of mind, adding a heightened clarity. Her chemistry with Davis as the new dream bestie (or savior) helps to maintain the rhythm and tone Cody’s striving for. That is, right up until the ending where the fairy tale-like motif is snapped out of our hands. Davis, formerly of Halt and Catch Fire fame, flaunts and silently screams her frustrations, turning the jazz of a tough day into committed work toward Marlo’s newborn. There is some small apparence to the lack of scenes to only involve Tully, and this may be appropriate, for even though the nanny is the title character, there simply couldn’t be any Tully without Marlo. Not just friends, but also bolsters of support. Essential against the raw subject matter fashioned by Cody’s wordsmith skill.
Preconceptions aside, the film’s intense script (a Cody hallmark) simply refuses to lighten up, drilling the nature of reality in parenting toward our skulls as deep as necessary. Lightfooting around the topic can’t always work, as much as the writer-director pairing accept growing up with all available gusto. They simply strive for all the bells and whistles of a Lifetime movie that’s clued in to the joke, but still unwilling to lie to itself or to its audience. Settling for anything short of the facts, regardless of the need to keep it in a package of worthwhile merit to the common audience in need of laughs on top of the darkness, is clearly not in their vocabulary.
Tully, for all its strengths, may still be a very tough sell for the average viewer, especially when the momentum falls apart in the last 20 or so minutes with a rather rushed ending on top of that. Its timing so close to Mother’s Day is still significant, if at least to play the card of filmic nontraditionalism. The reunion of Theron, Reitman and Cody is very appreciated, and rather overdue. We, as film enthusiasts certainly crave more stories that shine a bright enough light against our own lives, and to approach certain material with complete honesty, unashamed and unfiltered, there’s a rambunctious joy to be found, laughter against pain, and tears against triumph. Until that accursed ending where all the magic involved loses itself, the pieces just fit. (A-)
Tully opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity; 96 minutes.