TULLY (2018) is an odd movie.
Sometimes I like the odd ones. Other times I don’t. This one teetered right on the fulcrum for the most part, leaning ever so slightly towards the side of it-didn’t-really-work-for-me.
TULLY is a tale of motherhood, but that’s not what makes this one peculiar. The stress and toils of what it’s like to raise a newborn with two very active older children already in the house, and with an inattentive husband, that part the film gets right. It’s the extension of that part, which leads to the arrival of the titular character, where the film struggles.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have a baby, and as one of the characters points out, she looks like she’s going to pop. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have two children, an eight year-old girl Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah has emotional issues, and while Marlo has taken him to see doctors, they haven’t received a proper diagnosis of his condition. Jonah is prone to fits of panic, crying, and he fixates on routine, which all certainly sounds like a branch of autism, but the disorder is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Jonah is referred to as “quirky.”
Marlo is already under tremendous stress, mostly because all the parent duties fall on her. Drew works long hours, and when he comes home, they have dinner, and then he retreats to the bedroom where he plays video games. She has no idea how she is going to handle the additional burden of caring for a newborn.
Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nanny, someone who comes in at night and takes care of the baby so the mother can enjoy a full night’s sleep, or at least a better night’s sleep. The night nanny still wakes the mother up to breast feed, but that’s it. The mother is free to go right back to sleep afterwards. Craig even goes so far as to offer to pay for the night nanny as a birthday gift for Marlo, but she hesitates, not feeling comfortable inviting a stranger into her home to care for her baby while she’s sleeping.
But after a few rough weeks, Marlo changes her mind. Soon after, showing up at the front door one night like a magical Mary Poppins, is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), their new night nanny. Tully explains that she’s also there to take care of Marlo as well as the baby. In fact, she says she can help out with everything around the house.
If this sounds like the set-up for a bad horror movie, you’re right. It does, but TULLY is not a horror movie. It’s a comedy-drama, with the emphasis on drama. At one point, Marlo and Drew even joke that the situation does sound like a horror movie, but they laugh it off.
Tully is a quirky character herself, always positive, almost seeming like an angel to Marlo. She is certainly there to help, and the way she helps and her relationship with Marlo is pretty much the story TULLY has to tell.
First off, the most amazing thing about TULLY is that Charlize Theron gained 50 pounds for this role! Talk about dedication! Marlo’s body is supposed to be in rough shape after the pregnancy, as she struggles to lose the additional weight, and Theron with the extra pounds she put on looks the part.
The extra weight also represents the heavy emotional burden Marlo faces each day, as you can just see her struggling to stay afloat in her life. It’s a very good performance by Theron, certainly more satisfying than her traditional turn as the killer agent in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). That being said, I enjoyed her performance in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) better than her work here.
So, if you’re a fan of Charlize Theron, you definitely want to see this movie. It’s a chance to see her really act.
But the story I had some issues with. TULLY is by the same team that made JUNO (2007), with Jason Reitman directing and Diablo Cody writing the screenplay. Tully is definitely an odd character, one who at times seems too good to be true, a la Mary Poppins, and since this isn’t a fantasy tale, obviously something has to give, and what that something is to be honest I saw coming very early on.
For starters, the film offers some clues. For example, Marlo has a recurring dream about a mermaid swimming in the water, and since mermaids are not real, the imagery is there for the audience to see clearly a character— the mermaid— who is not real.
Also, if you’ve seen a certain famous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, you won’t be fooled here. It’s obvious early on by the way certain scenes are set up that something isn’t quite right.
The other issue I had with the screenplay by Diablo Cody is the way it handles the young Jonah character. The boy is certainly on the spectrum for autism or asperger syndrome, and yet no one in the movie acknowledges this. Even the administration and teachers at the school seem to be oblivious, only referring to Jonah as “quirky.” In this day and age, that didn’t seem realistic to me, nor was it credible that Marlo and Drew would have taken their son to multiple doctors without receiving a proper diagnosis.
It also didn’t help that Tully was supposed to be this savior character, but yet I found her persona grating and annoying.
Mackenzie Davis is fine as Tully, although admittedly I never warmed to the character. We recently saw Davis in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and I liked her better in that science fiction movie.
This isn’t the first time Ron Livingston has played an ineffective dad. He got to perform the same honors in the scary horror flick THE CONJURING (2013) a few years back. Here, as Drew, the video game playing father, Livingston is very good. What he does best is make Drew more clueless than careless. He does love his family and his wife, but it simply takes him an entire movie to realize he needs to get off his butt more to help out.
Which also brings me to another issue I had with this one, the ending. It ends on a happy note, which one would expect from a movie marketed as a comedy/drama, but I’m not sure I bought all of it. For instance, Drew supposedly sees the light at the end of the movie and realizes, “You know, I should be helping out more, shouldn’t I?” Duh! Through Livingston’s performance, I understood that Drew was a decent guy, but the script never sold me on the moment when he awakes from his self-absorbed stupor.
And as I said, the big twist in this one, I didn’t think was much of a twist because I saw it coming very early in the proceedings.
The movie wasn’t hyped all that much, and it showed, as I saw it with a small audience. There were only about ten of us in the theater.
TULLY is an odd one. It works best when it shows the incredible stress Marlo feels raising three children, including a developmentally challenged five year-old boy, and a newborn baby. It stumbles when it enters its metaphorical realm, with the entrance of the titular character Tully, the night nanny with all the answers.
There is certainly more to Tully than meets the eye, but sharp observers can figure out what that something is before it’s revealed. And once it is revealed, it begs the question, what’s the point? Is it all just one big wake-up call for Marlo and Drew? That seems to be the case.
I wish they had experienced this enlightenment earlier in the movie. The two of them working together trying to handle their challenging family situation sounds like a story I might like to see.