Exasperated and days away from giving birth to her third child, Marlo (Charlize Theron) quickly sighs and mutters that she wants to kill herself. It’s one of those conversational accouterments; those examples of daily hyperbole that we tend to succumb to as we punctuate our conversations. She says this somewhat under her breath, loud/quiet enough to leave doubt in what we heard. But Marlo’s in the company of her ineffectual husband Drew (Ron Livingston) and their two children. It’s her eight-year-old daughter that first lifts her head from whatever screen she’s occupying herself with, her attention snapped by the comment, and looking to clarify exactly what was said. It’s a scene that’s played for laughs as we expectantly see Drew try to mitigate his daughter’s concerns. Marlo, we gather, isn’t kidding.
Tully, the third Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody collaboration, suggests closure to a trilogy of sorts. If Juno captured the anxious adolescence and sexual awakening of a teenager and Young Adult reckoned with the hollowness of early adulthood, then Tully takes a more literal approach in reconciling the disappointments of adulthood by having it confront that adolescence. What we experience in Tully is a confrontation with contentment and the subsequent loss of identity that comes with giving up your life in service for another (and another, and another), where the day-in-day-out routine of motherhood sufficiently meets the parameters of impossible. Before Marlo gives birth to Mia, we observe the aching monotony and difficulties that mount through the simplest of chores, whether it be driving her children to school (her son, potentially autistic, proves to be especially taxing) or negotiating attention from her husband (frequently captured playing video games in the bedroom).
The narrative that propels the film sees Marlo gifted a night nanny by her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Initially reticent, she takes him up on the offer, wanting at least one night’s reprieve from the blaring cries of an infant (the film’s sound design should be credited for discouraging pregnancy purely for its aural discomfort). The night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), is the nubile sort that somehow manages to answer all of Marlo’s concerns. She’s the Mary Poppins of the millennial variety; the kind of altruistic, granola, cloyingly confident human that’s wise beyond her years. In essence, she’s an impossible human being. Cody’s scripting isn’t especially subtle, as certain passages point to the film’s eventual quote unquote surprise twist. My concern with Tully has less to do with its narrative simplicity and more to do with how it’s rendered (explicit spoilers in the following paragraph).
Tully and Marlo’s bond intensifies quickly, as the two share moments of profound intimacy, going so far as to eventually sharing Drew in an impromptu ménage à trois. It’s a bewildering escalation that abruptly comes to an end on a night that Marlo revisits her past. Abandoning her child and bar hopping in Brooklyn, she finds herself in an accident, where we soon discover that Tully was a figment of Marlo’s imagination – a specter of her youth before marriage. An audible gasp may echo through your movie theater at the confirmation of Marlo’s maiden name but the whole thing registered as both painfully obvious and painfully disingenuous. Particularly as the film reaches its woefully saccharine, slick ending.
The suggestion that Reitman and Cody posit, it would seem, is that a literal confrontation of past and present will render a clearer vision for the future. I don’t buy it. It’s wishful thinking at best, with the film’s presentation of mental illness and ineffectual partnerships striking me as agonizingly naïve. I’ve come to terms with Reitman’s sugary tendencies, but I had hoped that after Young Adult, that Cody could sharpen some of the edges of his filmmaking. It’s not the case here, as Tully is as blandly innocuous as Reitman’s previous two misfires. The flim-flam mode of filmmaking that has defined Reitman’s recent trajectory remains steadfast.