Tully is one of the best comedies of the year, fluttering between dark family fair and a Mary Poppins self-help guide. The characters are mostly simple and cliche, and yet those two components in combination with Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) provide the film’s easiest and most difficult lessons.
The story involves a burned out mother, Marlo, on the brink of giving birth. She’s pregnant with her third child, with her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston). Marlo’s other children include an introverted daughter and an autistic son. The mixture creates a combustible brew. In fact, much of Marlo’s life is like watching the aftermath of a roadside bomb: dazed and confused and not quite whole.
That is, until her brother offers to pay for a night nanny: a woman who cleans and cares at night. Here enters, Tully.
The screenplay by Diablo Cody tenderly massages Tully and Marlo’s relationship, interplaying between two diametrically different people. While Tully is free spirited, often mirroring self-affirming quotes you’d find in a meme, Marlo is now safe, a woman held together by baby carriers and resignation. The two, are an unlikely match: Tully’s sunny disposition and Marlo’s black cloud of death.
Yet, while the simplest comparison is that of Mary Poppins, that’s a difficult line to draw. While Poppins came to save a father who’d forgotten his children, no such crisis exists here. In fact, for the most part, both Marlo and Drew are loving parents. If Tully’s Poppins-esque character is there to save anyone, it’s Marlo. And it’s Tully’s tenderness that drives the plot, often coaching the tired mother with late night talks about cupcakes, “lost potential,” aging, and Drew.
In the film, what’s not in Marlo’s life is as important as what is. Yes, Marlo is in a million different places at once for her children, especially her son. Yet, she’s sullen that she’s not a PTA mom, the type who endlessly bakes. Yes, she has children and a husband she loves (and a career), but was Human Resources what she wanted to do with her English degree (I had an existential crisis thinking about that)? And while Marlo isn’t elderly, far from it, her body has changed from age and childbirth: for which Theron packed on a few extra pounds. And though Marlo’s husband is a good man, and father, he does the bare minimum nonetheless.
If there’s one slight against the film, it’s the slowed and dogged pace of the final third. Tully is a receptacle for Marlo, often agreeing with anything she says. And while there is a legitimate purpose to this narrative strip tease, it quickly loses steam, as there’s little conflict. Because in the end, there’s no bad person in Tully. And the external, and any signs of the internal conflict, leaves. For twenty-five minutes, we appear to enter into a motherly Eden. But even Eden had a snake, and the relative calm here subtracts from any real weight.
Now, maybe this is due to the fact that I’m missing the subtext. Obviously, I’m male. I’ve never had postpartem depression nor will I ever be postpartem. And this is probably a deeper issue with film criticism itself, as representation for singular narratives has been married to viewpoint. And while I believe good film critics are capable of reviewing any film, no matter their background, I also believe that true understanding can only be lost between the sign and signified when members of a community or subset do not speak for themselves. I do believe that “bird” to me may mean a flying mammal, while it may mean to another person, a “woman” or an “expletive.” So why not believe that a female critic is far more capable of mining greater understanding from Tully than I’ll ever be capable of? It’s just smart editorializing.
However, from my viewpoint, while there’s a certain subtext that I may be missing, the conflict is lacking in the latter portion of the film.
In fact, Cody is so conscious of protecting her conceit that she misses what makes Tully special, the unadornment of Marlo’s motherhood. What film have you seen where a mother wasn’t Superwoman in body and appearance? Typically, only older women playing grandmotherly figures are represented in “honest” terms. Here, Marlo is “overweight,” rarely wears makeup, and gets little sleep. When thrown in relation to her smug brother and his wife, a perky fit woman, we’re given an opposing archetypal image. That is, her sister-in-law is the type of mother we usually see in film, while Marlo is the bare reality.
And it’s in the small details: the Lego covered floors, the frozen pizza made, the soiled pampers, which gives the film an authenticity. Because in those items, we see our lives. We see our monotony, our yearning for action, our frayed nerves. We are the parents who wonder how the others find the time. We are the aged, watching as the years slip by and we become someone different with each passing day. And we watch, knowing all those mental and physical ailments are worth it, even when our dreams occupy the rear-view mirror and reality kicks the back of our seat.