‘Tully’ Review: Motherhood and Magical Thinking

Jason Reitman returns with Charlize Theron and Diablo Cody for his warmest movie since Juno.

Tully Charlize Theron

Jason Reitman returns with Charlize Theron & Diablo Cody for his warmest movie since Juno.

Jason Reitman has the most arresting career arc of any of the middle-range studio white boys. None of the Judd Apatow gang has the sensibility to ever make a good movie, but Reitman already made three: a trilogy of rising status that ended in 2009 with Up In the Air, a film that suggested Reitman was the kind of person you give Oscars to (it was nominated for six). Objectively, so to speak, Reitman returns to form in Tully, his most overtly likable movie since Juno, with moments of comedy and emotional revelation that rival any of Ellen Page’s awe-shucks discoveries. But it is informed by the kind of impalpable darkness that had defined the last decade of both Reitman’s and occasional screenwriting collaborator Diablo Cody’s careers, leaning closer to Young Adult, Cody’s last movie with Reitman, which brought Charlize Theron into their mix. Life sucks and if you’re not George Clooney, audiences only want to hear so much about it. This is a challenge for the cynical and world-weary, and Tully is an effort to answer it.

The trio finds their muse for such thoughts in motherhood, a profession that the chic phrase “emotional labor” fits like a glove. The mother in question is Marlo (Theron), an overworked mother of two who has another one on the way. She is married to the father of these children but he, Drew (Ron Livingston), like most people named Drew, is no help. He becomes slightly more helpful toward the movie’s end, but Tully isn’t the story of his change, it is rather incidental. Your man will never be of much value and Tully does good in looking elsewhere.

A wealthy brother enters, played by Mark Duplass, who offers help in the form of a nanny (the titular “Tully,” played by Mackenzie Davis), which flirts somewhat with the possibility of being a social comedy, a critique on how the rich have it so much better because of an un-unionized service economy populated by the young and less privileged. Reitman moves elsewhere—he is the son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman after all—but Cody’s script digs around this territory to the movie’s most populist, comic effect. (the wealthy family has a dog named “Prosecco.”) This makes Tully his funniest movie since Juno as well.

And motherhood is bleak, Reitman and Cody report. Theron’s eyes decide, delicately but decisively, to bag like enormous Liptons. It is a hell that doesn’t stop and spoils the garden around them, spilling milk and toys like the blood and brick ruins of an ancient kingdom. I thought indeed of Game Night, where Livingston briefly appeared earlier this year to play against the type he’s cast in here and wondered if this was the future that the movie’s wannabe parents are supposed to long for with such studio-comedy vigor. The sequences in Tully rival the realism of Eisenstein in reporting relatable conditions with stylish panache.

The anguish of being a mother, for Reitman and Cody, is more than merely a very hard and endless series of chores. They see it as a mark of mortality: the third child is the catalyst for a mid-life crisis that, say, losing a job or a spouse would be in another movie. Indeed, those were the very events that unmoored Theron’s character in Young Adult, but here Theron reaches the notes of that movie’s emotional yelling-at-everybody climax in a far earlier scene, delivering it to her character’s own children. She has been unmoored from her life as she has lived it and opened to a space outside of it, which she quickly and brutally enters with the force of a thousand winds. This is merely where Tully begins.

When the saga ends, a doctor shows up to tell us that the movie was about post-partum depression, though aspersions have already been made that the diagnosis is more clearly post-partum psychosis, which would make Tully closer to Andrea Yates than the Joe Everymom that Focus Features would like her to be (Tagline: How The Mother Half Lives). This, itself, is an interesting critique of Reitman’s later and less popular works, that they enjoy the extremities of human nature too much to appeal the kind of boring people who show up for wide-release fare. They are stories of divorcees attempting to seduce married men, suburban moms falling in love with convicts, the star of the high school football team leaving his post to play MMOGs. They are closer to MFA short fiction than today’s lighter than air comedies or gritty dramas and critics are confused by documents that bear familiar faces but are absent the address of any recipient. (Despite his diminishing returns, Reitman has remained able to retain faces like Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Winslet and Adam Sandler in leading positions.)

Reitman’s last movie was a popularly and critically forgotten ensemble piece called Men, Women & Children which starred the likes of Sandler, Jennifer Garner, and Judy Greer but was commonly misread as an attack on internet culture because a number of people in it were on their phones. This gives a picture of the state of confusion surrounding Reitman. Others call his work satirical, an idea he’s been trying to shake off since debuting with an adaptation of a Christopher Buckley novel, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking. Reitman is instead interested in characters at the fringes of popular acceptance, people who are rarely seen as heroes, super or working class, be they lobbyists, unrepentant teenage mothers, or the guy who fires you. In Tully, he observes that to be a mother, to really be one, is to be similarly outside the heroic imagination. To be slim and yearning for the normative and nuclear family is more fashionable than to be actually surrounded by it. And so, Reitman drapes her in the hermeneutic cape of magical thinking, not unlike that of Edward Norton’s everyboy in Fight Club.

Resolution evades Tully because motherhood never ends. Its understanding of this fact elevates it above the standard studio movie that understands nothing about the lives of its viewers. (Marvel and Disney’s blockbuster epics at least are very frank about this.) To watch it, somewhat, is to mentally collect a listicle like “These Top 5 Moments in Tully Are So Relatable, They’ll Make Your Boobs Leak.” The story, which Reitman dedicates himself to ruthlessly, is less important than the world erected around it, enacted with brutally perfect precision by Theron, and this is where most viewers will find themselves happily inside.

movies are not magic but skin and bone.