Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody broke out together with the release of “Juno” 11 years ago, establishing themselves as important filmmakers while still in their 20s. Their follow-up together, 2011’s “Young Adult,” starring Charlize Theron as a woman stuck on life’s launching pad, disappointed.
Since then, their careers have fluttered in fading notoriety, with Reitman’s “Labor Day” becoming a cinematic laughing stock -- unfairly, imho -- while Cody has largely moved to television (which isn’t the big step down it used to be).
They’re back for a third time, again with Theron, for “Tully.” I don’t know if it will revive their names as A-list filmmakers, but it’s a smart and sensitive portrait of the trials of motherhood, along with a few developments we don’t see coming.
It’s a brave and unexpected movie, and Theron is magnificent in another career-turning role.
After getting lean and spare to play a one-armed warrior in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Theron reportedly gained 50 pounds to portray Marlo, a woman of about age 40 who is giving birth to her third (unplanned) child. At first I thought it was very convincing prosthetics, but the former model went all the way to personify a very convincing postpartum body.
At one point, a completely frazzled Marlo has a drink spilled on her while eating dinner with the children, as her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), returns from another of many business trips. Completely at the end of her rope, she nonchalantly strips off the sopping shirt to reveal a mammoth maternity bra and mottled belly.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with your body?” her oldest, Sarah (Lia Frankland), asks in the sweetest tone.
In addition to the baby, Marlo also struggles with her kindergartner, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has serious anxiety issues that cause him to be a disruption at school, and everywhere. The fact he’s undiagnosed, but universally described as “quirky,” only heightens the challenge.
Marlo and Drew have a typical three-kids relationship: someone’s always coming or going, they’re always running late and marital intimacy has been moved to the back burner, and then off the burner to the counter, and then put away in the fridge. Drew seems like a decent guy, but he works all the time, and when he’s home he’s helping with the kids or playing video games.
The primary relationship in the story is between Marlo and Tully, the young “night nanny” who has been hired by Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) as a baby shower gift. This is a person who takes care of the baby so mom and dad can sleep.
(Well, let’s face it, dads: so mom can sleep.)
Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, is energetic and earnest, endlessly helpful and supportive. She not only watches the baby, she cleans up the house and bakes cupcakes, too. And she initiates a friendship with Marlo that allows the mom to perk up out of her litany of exhaustion and underappreciation.
There’s a lot of bright humor in the film, courtesy of Cody. I loved this exchange in which the two women discuss Marlo’s pre-marriage sex life:
“I rode every horse on the merry-go-round.”
“So which horse is Drew?”
“Drew is… the bench.”
I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice it to say the new friendship proceeds in surprising ways. Marlo struggles with the monotony of parenthood, but Tully advises her that kids need their moms to be “dull and constant.”
I have a number of married friends who have chosen not to have children. “Tully” is the sort of movie that would only validate their decisions, as it depicts parenthood in all its horrible, depressing, exhilarating glory. The truth is Furioso may have been tougher than Mad Max, but someone like Marlo is more than their match.