The title character in Tully, the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, doesn’t make her entrance until well into the film, after it’s established that the protagonist, Marlo (Charlize Theron), is moving from postpartum depression to postpartum desperation — and that’s when the movie enters uncharted territory and comes to life.
Marlo isn’t just struggling with a baby daughter. She has a disruptive young son who’s on the brink of getting kicked out of elementary school, and an older daughter for whom she barely has time. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is a non-presence, sometimes literally (when traveling for his floundering business), often emotionally, always sexually. It’s Marlo’s rich brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who offers to pay for a “night nanny,” a woman who’ll arrive after dark and, when required, bring the infant to its sleeping mother’s breast. Marlo resists until her body and mind are frazzled — until she speaks openly of hating her decision to marry and have children. In her 20s, she was a selfish free spirit, on the spectrum (if not as extreme) as the character Theron played in Reitman and Cody’s Young Adult. She wishes she still had that freedom. And so arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a vivacious 26-year-old with uncanny insight into Marlo’s divided self.
As an anti-fan of the pair’s Juno and the aggressively sour second half of Young Adult, I found the setup of Tully sadly up (or down) to par. Cody often seems incapable of letting a line of dialogue — even a simple retort — rest on its merits. She adds clauses meant to make the characters more witty, but end up signaling her own insecurity. Reitman (son of the comedy director, Ivan) evidently fancies himself an edgy filmmaker, though edgy for him means scoring points off of his supporting characters (little people) to give his self-centered protagonists more stature. His movies have an ugly, Ayn Randian spirit. Tully boasts robotically unfeeling school bureaucrats; a woman who openly disapproves of the pregnant Marlo ordering a decaf because it still has a trace of caffeine (that damned liberal nanny state!); and Craig’s wife (Elaine Tan), whose lethal smugness also extends to warning about hormone-packed food. She tells Tully that her boss gave her a gift of a Japanese soaking tub, to which Tully says that her boss gave her the flu. It’s like Neil Simon on an off day. (Cody is capable of great one-liners, though: Hearing that Elyse’s daughter is performing in a school talent show, Marlo asks, “What’s her talent?” and Elyse says, “Pilates.”)
Something happens, though, when the character of Tully comes: The movie contracts in a good way, deepens, and becomes very impressive. Davis is part of that. She’s a vivid actress and fearless on camera, which doesn’t mean that she overemotes, but that she’s comfortable letting go, putting all her attention on the other actor; and Theron responds by loosening up and entering Davis’s orbit. I don’t mean to suggest that Theron is bad before that: She vividly evokes the disgust of a beautiful woman who has lost control of her body. But there’s magic in her later scenes, in the way she flinches but then gives in to Tully’s prying questions about her sex life, her past, her unfulfilled dreams. It’s a psychic seduction, offbeat bordering on eerie — and revelatory.
The Tully-Marlo relationship is born of solipsism and inner drama, and Cody turns out to be amazingly gifted at it. There’s still the occasional grating one-liner, but she seems to be writing from her unconscious, with a first-person novelist’s density of insight and a dramatist’s keen ear. She makes Tully’s nightly arrivals like the visitations of a teasing ghost — or a mermaid, who shows up in Marlo’s dream — and there’s poetry and mystery in the younger woman’s words about the infant as she sends Marlo to bed: “She’ll grow a little overnight. So will we.” Reitman is smart enough to frame these scenes naturalistically and let the actresses’ rhythms take over. His pacing is perfectly attuned. He and Cody subtly prepare you for Marlo’s desperate acting out in her later scenes and even the movie’s jarring final section, which is preceded by snippets of the entire Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual album and then punctuated by garish thrash metal.
It’s possible that some critics and viewers will find Tully’s resolution too soft, too domestic, and will attribute its turn away from darkness to the filmmakers’ desire not to have another commercial flop like Young Adult. I’d prefer to think that Cody learned from Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook that unruly manifestations of despair can be stations on the road to mental health — or at least something that allows a person to live with her or his demons without being disabled by them. There’s no shame in saying that you’ve stared into the abyss and now want to play with your kids.