"It'll be like a Lifetime movie with the nanny who kills the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end."
Jason Reitman has always been deeply fascinated with people in their own habitat. His best films certainly reflect the method of studying a character within the domain in which they are most comfortable and gradually peeling back the layers of their own persona. How layered and nuanced he is in this approach acts as a measurement of how each particular project weighs up. Regardless of the final product though, there’s always a level of intrigue going into a film by Reitman.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is a New York suburbanite who's about to give birth to her third child. Her second son has a rare developmental disorder. Meanwhile her husband, despite being a loving and supportive figure, remains clueless about the demands that motherhood puts on his wife. When the baby is born, Marlo's wealthy brother hires a night time nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help his sister handle the workload.
The premise of ‘Tully’ certainly fits in with Reitman’s usual forte as a filmmaker, with the film observing just a sparse handful of characters and rarely moving location over the course of its runtime. But in doing so Reitman once again showcases his skill of observing and dissecting people for their inner qualities. I imagine it is one of the aspects that actors must relish when working with him. It gives them a chance to put aside distractions regarding a convoluted plot and instead focus completely on developing a fully realised character.
Charlize Theron has proven herself as one of the best actors of this era on multiple occasions, so it would take a lot for a performance of hers so surprise me. Yet ‘Tully’ does just that as Theron portrays a character with such intimacy and warmth that I feel I’ve never quite seen from her before. It’s such a departure from her tour de force performances in ‘Monster’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ in which she plays damaged people hardened to the world around them. ‘Tully’ gives her a chance to a vulnerability that is deeply moving to behold. But what makes it even more impactful is how Theron bestows such a sense of inner strength to the character. Both Theron’s performance and the movie as a whole act as a touching tribute to motherhood.
It would be easy to focus purely on Theron, but the small supporting cast around her are also terrific in their respective roles. Davis adds enough ambiguity to Tully as a character that as a viewer you empathise with Marlo’s own doubts at first and subsequently experience each surprise and revelation about her personality as Marlo does. Ron Livingstone also makes for a reassuring presence as Marlo’s husband Drew. He plays the character with a level of sympathy that’s refreshing when the character could so easily have descended into a one note neglectful type.
This is where Diablo Cody’s screenplay works wonders because it consistently renders the characters of the story as complex individuals. There’s no cinematic shorthand or lazy generalisations. Instead Cody takes the time to endear his audience to each character on some level, and then slowly opens them up for the audience to observe. It’s gradual and perfectly paced to the film’s runtime, never coming across as contrived or melodramatic. This approach is perfectly matched by Reitman’s direction which possesses a deep affection for observing these characters, to a point where the camera itself seems hurt by their pain and struggles.
Another aspect that is treated with a refreshing amount of nuance and variety is the tone of the film itself. There are so many moments at which ‘Tully’ could risk coming across as depressingly sombre but Cody’s dialogue and Reitman’s direction keep the proceedings entertaining when they need to be. The moments of comedy that are spread across the struggles of these people only work to endear the audience to them even more, whilst making the movie more impressive as it reaches a wider spectrum of human emotion. But adding comedy brings another risk, wherein a film can easily undercut its own drama with not enough weight. But once again ‘Tully’ treads the tonal tightrope excellently.
Though the story is sparse, being driven more by characters and emotion than outside occurrences ‘Tully’ flies by at a welcome pace. It never overstays its welcome and hardly feels empty either. My only gripe would be that the third act does descend into some contrived melodrama to further the plot. It’s not that these plot points are not justified, but they do clash with the low key tone at which the rest of the movie unfolds, since it suddenly plunges into a faster form of storytelling. But aside from that, ‘Tully’ is consistently effective in the area it most wants to be, emotional resonance.
Emotionally endearing and punctuated with fully realised characters that contain a plethora of nuance, ‘Tully’ sees Jason Reitman delivering his usual brand of comedic drama.