Director Jason Reitman Rebounds With ‘Tully’, an Ode to Ma

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(2018—Director: Jason Reitman)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★★½
(out of 5 stars) 

“I’m here to take care of you.” “I thought you’re taking care of the baby?” “Yeah, but right now, you pretty much are the baby.” — Tully (Mackenzie Davis) and Marlo (Charlize Theron) 

“Girls don’t heal.” (beat) “Girls heal.” “No, we don’t. We might look like we’re all better, but if you look close, we’re covered in concealer.” — Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Tully (Mackenzie Davis)

Potential spoilers below

Since the success of 2009’s Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman seems to have hit a career slump. 2011’s Young Adult reunited Reitman with Diablo Cody, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their 2007 smash hit Juno. Young Adult received strong reviews and a few mentions from less prestigious awards groups for Ms. Cody and star Charlize Theron. Sadly, the film flew under most mainstream radars. Reitman’s next projects fared even worse with critics and at the box office. The melodramatic Labor Day from 2013 just surpassed its production budget at the box office. The “internet bad” preachiness of 2014’s Men, Women, & Children crashed and burned upon arrival.

In light of this artistic downturn, Tully—director Reitman and writer Ms. Cody’s third collaboration and their second with actress Ms. Theron—comes off as a soft rebound for the director. Reitman keeps simple his careful execution of Ms. Cody’s dramedy script. Both Cody’s writing and Reitman’s direction allow as much space as possible for star Charlize Theron’s sure-handed and fittingly unrefined performance. With the charming Mackenzie Davis standing out from the rest of the cast, the result is a heartwarming, if imperfect, tribute to motherhood.

As a mother of three, Marlo Monroe (Charlize Theron) wishes she could have the time, energy, and patience that other mothers have. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works long hours by day and plays video games by night, dampening what little of a love life they had before. Their daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) has reached an age where self-consciousness begins its reign. Meanwhile, the hyperactivity of their son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) has become too much for the private school Marlo’s affluent brother Craig (Mark Duplass) had graciously arranged for Jonah to attend. Craig suggests that Marlo hire a “night nanny” to watch over her and Drew’s newborn daughter Mia so that Marlo can at least catch up on sleep. Marlo resists at first, reluctant to sacrifice any memories of raising her third child, but she soon relents. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a free-spirited young woman whose confidence in nocturnal babysitting encourages Marlo to embrace motherhood and persevere through its harshest challenges.

Charlize Theron is, without a doubt, the movie’s MVP. As the overworked and underappreciated Marlo, Theron commands the screen with a method-like commitment, not the least of which includes her increased body weight to match the during and after of a third pregnancy. Her rising frustration is palpable when Jonah kicks the back of the driver’s seat and when Jonah panics at the sound of a flushing toilet. In addition, when Tully remarks in one scene, “You’re empty,” the simplicity of Theron’s “Yes…” speaks volumes while also contrasting well with the misunderstanding joke that follows. Save for the early May release, it should not surprise anyone if Theron’s range here earns the actress her first Best Actress Oscar nomination since 2005’s North Country. Also in the running for an acting Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actress) is Mackenzie Davis as the titular night nanny. While Ms. Davis (last seen in Blade Runner 2049) does not steal all her scenes, she maintains a steady, expressive, toe-to-toe presence opposite Ms. Theron.

In Tully’s second scene, Drew reminds Marlo that her brother Craig hates him. Later on, when Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) are leaving the hospital after Marlo gives birth to Mia, Craig reminds Elyse that Drew hates him. This misunderstanding comprises one of the few undercooked ways Tully signals to viewers how certain narrative developments are not what they seem. The rush of the likeable dramedy’s home stretch carries a disappointing air of arbitrariness, unaided by the mermaid imagery that appears throughout the film. As such, the likable story does not make smoothest landing. Moreover, director Reitman’s apprehension to meddle with the material robs the movie of more subtle hints and misleading tricks that would make repeat viewings more rewarding.

In spite of its late narrative tangles, Tully still succeeds in displaying the specific lengths a mother would go to nurture their children. The magic of Ms. Cody’s screenplay lies in how it brings audiences an intimate sense of the maternal vocation’s complexities. Conversely, husband Drew’s paternal role remains vague, yet holds true to its natural and sensible place without a second thought, surrendering the spotlight to Marlo for 96 minutes.

From here, Diablo Cody can move on to polishing her book for the musical stage adaptation of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit album Jagged Little Pill. Jason Reitman can shift with newfound confidence to biographical dark comedy with The Front Runner. Both owe a thank you to Ma, embodied by Charlize Theron as Marlo.

And to all mothers out there, including and especially my own, I wish you a fantastic and memorable Happy Mother’s Day!

(Parental Note: Tully has been rated R by the MPAA “for language and some sexuality/nudity”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language, sex references,” and “sex”, and rated L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “some misguided values, including implicit acceptance of promiscuity and homosexual acts, strong sexual content involving pornographic images, nudity, marital lovemaking and a problematic scene of childhood sexuality, a couple of uses of profanity, and numerous rough and crude terms.”)


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

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