"TULLY" — 2 stars — Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston; R (language and some sexuality/nudity); in general release
"Tully" feels like an interesting idea that just didn't translate into a good movie.
Jason Reitman's film, penned by "Juno" writer Diablo Cody, follows a struggling mother as she wrestles with the aftermath of having her third child.
Things are difficult for Marlo (Charlize Theron) even before child No. 3 arrives. As the film opens, we watch her gently brush her son Jonah's (Asher Miles Fallica) skin. It's a therapeutic routine for a young boy who is having substantial challenges in school, and though his behavior is never exactly diagnosed in the film, the word "quirky" comes up a lot.
Marlo's marriage is also complicated. Drew (Ron Livingston) is a good man and a dedicated provider — even if the shadow of Marlo's wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) constantly looms over their comparatively meager means — but he's also a little too dedicated to his late-night gaming routine, and — no surprise — Marlo and Drew are experiencing intimacy problems.
Everything gets enhanced once little Mia arrives, and Marlo lurches into a nightmare of a mothering montage — rolling out of bed, changing diapers, breastfeeding, rinse, repeat — that would put Sisyphus to shame.
Finally the pressure becomes too great and Marlo decides to accept her brother's offer to gift them a "night nanny," which sounds like the title of a really bad movie but apparently refers to a nanny who specializes in handling the "up all night" responsibilities of tending to a newborn.
Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a confident 20-something free spirit who embodies everything Marlo feels like she's lost. (At one point, Marlo describes her as "a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth-graders.") Tully takes the reigns from Marlo, tends to Mia and slowly helps the overwhelmed mother put her chaotic life back together.
For a while, "Tully" feels like a tension-free film. Life pre-Tully is hard; life with Tully is good. But then things start to get kind of strange, particularly as Tully's vague job description begins to expand, encompassing such tasks as "fix Marlo and Drew's sex life."
To say more would give away too much, but audiences should understand that "Tully's" third act contains a great white whale of a twist that, while it does manage to explain some earlier curiosities in the film, feels grossly out of place. It's as if a family drama suddenly took a hard left into M. Night Shyamalan territory.
Audiences should also keep in mind that "family drama" doesn't mean family-friendly. "Tully's" unflinching manner of getting at the blunt reality of parenting and motherhood feels sympathetic but uncompromising. Though the film's R rating comes primarily from occasional profanity and some breastfeeding-related nudity, sensitive audiences may find themselves cringing at "Tully's" less justified crude content, such as Marlo's obsession with a reality TV show about gigolos.
Credit is due for Theron, however, and not just because in true hardcore method acting style, she put on 50 pounds for the role. (Cody's writing capitalizes as Marlo laments a post-pregnancy body that "looks like a relief map of a war-torn country.") Her performance is solid and at its heart "Tully" is sincere, albeit in a perpetually awkward way. Maybe with a revision or two, that twist might have worked. Sadly, though, it just doesn't.
"Tully" is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity; running time: 96 minutes.