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You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Movie

Tully
(2018)

 

A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I’ll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

Jason Reitman appears to be carving himself out an expressly “respectable” niche as a purveyor of relationship dramas about adults for adults. Which, in Hollywood, means he can’t entirely escape the whiff of cynical calculation about his chosen stock in trade. Young Adult, his previous collaboration with Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron, is a pretty good picture, one that should have done much better business than it did. His first Cody effort, Juno, was of course a runaway hit, big enough to keep them both working a decade later, in the hope they’ll strike gold again.

Reitman’s mostly been his own writer/adaptor, though, albeit often in a shared capacity, and has sometimes bitten off more than he can chew in that regard (Labour Day). Based on past form, then, the chances were that a reunion with Cody would pay dividends.

I had the impression from the trailer that Tully was designed as an easy popcorn crowd pleaser, with a smidge of manic pixie fairy dust sprinkled on it; stressed-out mom for the third time Marlo (Theron) reluctantly takes on the titular night nanny (Mackenzie Davis), with life transforming results. Like Mrs Doubtfire, right? Or Mary Poppins, but without the animated penguins. Well no, not really.

Everything prior to Tully’s arrival is established with care and economy, in particular Marlo’s family unit; her kids are geeky Sarah (Lia Frankland) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), the latter taking up much of her time due to an undiagnosed developmental disorder that means his school no longer wants him. Hubby is Ron Livingstone, who is pretty much ideal casting as the archetypal movie husband. He has a vague audit job and spends evenings killing zombies with his headphones on; I was wondered, when he said he had a couple of business trips coming up, if he’d be revealed as having an affair. Fortunately, we’re spared that, and he’s a genuinely good guy.

Brother Mark Duplass (kind of impossible to see him now without thinking of Goliath Season Two, even here, where he’s relatively sympathetic) is very rich and married to stick-thin, perfect wife Elaine Tan (“The ninth month is tough. I remember, I could barely make it to the gym“). In response to her various tribulations, Cody has a tendency to pepper Marlo’s dialogue with the kind of black wit that feels a little over-written, as if she’s been taking notes from Joss Whedon, but this attitude-first approach means scenes often have an enviable bite.

Which rather dissipates when Tully arrives. The main problem with Tully is that she’s really annoying. Obviously, there’s a reason she’s so perfect, but you’d have thought Reitman and Cody would want to encourage us to see the same thing Marlo sees in her. Instead, her dialogue is mostly facile platitudes and wiki-facts, not helped any by there being little discernible chemistry between Theron and Davis. The consequent scenes don’t exactly drag, but neither do they feel energised.

Now, one might argue – and there’s no way not to talk about the twist here, but anyway, these are spoiler reviews – she doesn’t need to be “likeable” because she doesn’t exist. That’s why she’s so ridiculously attentive to Marlo’s needs, and speaks in a way no one in real life speaks. I doubt, however, that it was Reitman’s intention for Davis to deliver so unengagingly.

This is self-evidently the Fight Club of motherhood, and probably engineered with exactly that level of pop-cynicism. But the whole thing there was Brad Pitt in charismatic, attitudinous overdrive. Davis is too vanilla, even with the character’s more manic pixie flourishes, so a character who should impress with her unreal vivacity ends up plain irksome. Or maybe it isn’t her fault, and Cody didn’t get the character down; whichever it is, there’s a disconnect.

There’s been some controversy over the movie’s turn. That it isn’t, in fact, a sensitive portrait of postnatal depression, but is rather a Hollywood version of postnatal psychosis (the first rule of Tully is: You do not talk about postnatal depression). There’s something to this, to the extent that, in twist pictures, the tail wags the dog. Any other content necessarily becomes secondary to what you’re building to, or working back from. Instead of how insightful I am, the pictures architecture revolves around how clever I am. And in this case, the insightfulness is dragged down, because the cleverness isn’t that clever or revealing.

Certainly not enough to justify Theron thinking she needed to go full method for the part, gaining 3½ stone. Some people – Eddie Murphy, say – would rely on acting and a fat suit, and thus bypass the year-and-a-half it took to remove the weight afterwards. Theron’s really good, and usually elevates anything she’s in, but in this instance, Reitman and Cody didn’t deserve her. Tully would have been a much better movie without the gimmick.

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