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With: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan
Written by: Diablo Cody
Directed by: Jason Reitman
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/04/2018

Tully (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ticking Time Mom

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see Jason Reitman's Tully at the San Francisco Film Festival, because it has given me enough time to truly ponder its depths. I now think it's the best film Reitman has made in a career of slightly overpraised good films (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) some flat-out bad ones (Labor Day; Men, Women & Children), and an unsung gem (Thank You for Smoking). It comes from a screenplay by the Oscar-winner Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno and Young Adult; it's her third time working with Reitman and her second time working with star Charlize Theron, who starred in Young Adult. I'll stop referencing earlier movies now, because Tully leaves them all behind.

Theron stars as Marlo, a mother of two who is pregnant with her third. ("Such a blessing," she tells someone with just the right amount of sardonic drip.) She's somewhat lost and cynical, stuck in a rut and not sure what to do, other than to continue her exhausting daily routine. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is troubled, and prone to fits, although no one has any real explanation. In the movie's first scene, Marlo puts him to bed by brushing his skin with a special soft brush; this is supposed to calm him.

Marlo's husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is kind and helps with the kids' homework, but he's a bit flummoxed by the whole thing. He doesn't seem to understand his wife or what she needs, even though he wants to. At some point every night, he winds up in the bedroom playing first-person-shooter games with headphones on. The baby comes, and Reitman provides razor-sharp montages of the birth, followed by one depicting feedings, diapers, breast milk pumping, etc., that makes parenthood seem as exhausting as it really is.

Marlo has a brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who has made a fortune. He lives with his pretty wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) and has installed a tiki bar. After this foursome eats an awkward dinner together, Craig offers to pay for a "night nanny" for Marlo. This would be someone who arrives in the evening, spends the night watching over the baby, and takes care of the nighttime feedings, allowing the mother to sleep. At first Marlo declines, but eventually finds herself pulling out the phone number. Thus arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), an adorable twenty-something with a tight tummy — she loves wearing half-shirts — to juxtapose Marlo's post-pregnancy belly roll. Tully seems to do the trick, waking up Marlo for breast feedings and allowing her to fall right back to sleep while the baby eats.

Tully also cleans and makes treats for the kids, and generally life seems to get better. Eventually Tully and Marlo begin talking, sharing their innermost fears, and discussing sex. Tully helps Marlo seduce Drew in an attempt to re-ignite the couple's failing sex life. One night the women even take a sudden road trip into Manhattan, figuring that Drew will look after the kids. Reitman provides another brilliant montage, a road-trip listening of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual in awkward chunks to show the passing of time. They drink at a bar and get into a little trouble. And it's here that the movie takes a most unusual turn.

To talk too much about the movie's third act would do it a dire disservice, so I will focus instead on how honest it is, how truthful. Children in movies are often either an endgame, a goal reached that symbolized ultimate happiness, or else they are cute sidekicks, assembled for adorable reaction shots or funny little one-liners. In Tully, they are a handful. They are loved, and they are wonderful, but they are very hard work, and taking care of them is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. They change everything in a relationship, and communication can break down in the process of things that simply have to be done, every day. This movie gets all that; it gets how funny it can be, how frustrating, and how close to the brink it can push a person.

Theron is at her absolute best here (in a class with Monster and Mad Max: Fury Road), letting Cody's dialogue slide around her tongue before acidly spitting it out. She reads lines like "I feel like an abandoned trash barge" with maximum weight and layers; she can split sides, but she's also devastating. It should be noted that she packed on actual pounds to look as if she has lived through a pregnancy, and this is especially remarkable given that Theron herself has never been pregnant (she has adopted children).

The other actors are wonderful support as well, and credit goes to Cody's script, which — in addition to Reitman's work — is also her very best. Her earlier scripts are quirky and snarky and funny, but this one is the first one that ventures deeper and finds something to care about. "You're empty," Tully says in one scene, referring to Marlo's milk, but Marlo hears it as something else. That line epitomizes the entirety of the movie; Tully is very funny and hugely entertaining. It's worthy of a water-cooler discussion, but at the same time, it's profoundly moving and unforgettable.

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