Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to give birth to her third child. One of her other children, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), acts out, causing Marlo problems at home and at Jonah’s school. He is described as “quirky,” a word that ultimately means little and does nothing to ease Marlo’s troubles.
Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) continues working when Marlo goes on paternity leave (which she begins just three days before her due date). When he comes home, he helps the kids with their homework and then disappears behind a video game controller and headset. All the while, Marlo is getting up in the middle of the night to tend to her newborn.
After days of this, she is exhausted. She is depressed. She is fed up. As much as it pains her to do so, she takes her brother’s (Mark Duplass) advice and hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
Tully is the re-teaming of Theron, director Jason Reitman, and screenwriter Diablo Cody; their last joint venture being 2011’s Young Adult. It is a film with the wit that we have come to associate with Cody and the meditative emotional emphasis that has been exhibited in Reitman’s previous work. Both spheres of influence are appropriate for the subject matter, and both are more or less effective on their own. Together, however, the two tones don’t always mesh.
Luckily, the film has Theron in the center to pull these two forces together. Her performance as a perpetually exhausted mother who gets a brief respite every night when Tully appears seems effortless. It becomes evident, through how she is able to ground the emotional weight of the movie while also delivering on the acerbic wit of the script, that she elevates her character to something more than what is on the page.
In the areas of the film where Theron is absent—namely, when other characters start speaking—the tone starts breaking down slightly. As much as Cody has a way with writing humorous dialogue, her characters don’t always sound natural. We can see this most prominently in Tully. Sometimes she speaks in cosmic terms or as if she is quoting somebody else, a speech pattern that is addressed as a joke within the world of the film. And yet the dialogue comes across as apparent dialogue, as opposed to the more organic speech that we get from Theron’s character.
Tully’s character, on the whole, feels like a distraction from the more effective elements of the film’s narrative. A key plot point late in the film hinges on the nature of her character, but it is not a revelation that is necessary for the film to function thematically on the terms it has laid out.
If anything, this moment undercuts the emotional impact that these themes have. It is a plot point that is believable within the context of the story, and it is one that has a thematic purpose. But prior to this point, the film has done a successful job of engendering an empathetic understanding of Marlo’s situation. The toll of her job as a mother (among other responsibilities that she is forced to put curbside for the time being) has been firmly established, as is the selflessness and thanklessness of this position.
Adding a quirky turn at the end doesn’t feel like a fitting resolution to this very real situation. The film weaves vague fantasy elements into it, with a motif of mermaids becoming more important as the film reaches its climax, but these images have less impact than the images of unflattering realism that Cody and Reitman have established.
Prior to its climax, Tully paints a resonant portrait of motherhood. With Theron at the forefront, sympathy and humor can be found in this portrait. It is when the script takes left turns away from the realism that the film starts to unravel.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)