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You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully
(2018)

(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging. 


Jason Reitman appears to be expressly carving himself out a "respectable" niche as a purveyor of relationship dramas about adults for adults, which in Hollywood means he can't entirely escape the whiff of cynical calculation about his chosen stock in trade. Young Adult, his previous collaboration with Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron, is a terrific picture, one that should have done much better business than it did. His first Cody effort, Juno, was of course a runaway hit, big enough to keep them both working a decade later in the hope they'll strike gold again. Reitman's mostly been his own writer/adaptor, though, albeit often in a shared capacity, and has sometimes bitten off more than he can chew in that regard (Labor Day). Based on past form, then, the chances were that a reunion with Cody would pay dividends.


I had the impression from the trailer that Tully was designed as an easy popcorn crowd-pleaser, with a bit of manic pixie fairy dust sprinkled on it; stressed-out mom for the third time Marlo (Theron) reluctantly takes on the titular night nanny (Mackenzie Davis), with life transforming results. Like Mrs Doubtfire, right? Or Mary Poppins, but without the animated penguins. Well no, not really.


Everything prior to Tully's arrival is established with care and economy, in particular Marlo's family unit; her kids are geeky Sarah (Lia Frankland) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), the latter taking up a lot her time due to an undiagnosed developmental disorder that means his school no longer wants him. Hubby is Ron Livingstone, who is pretty much ideal casting as the archetypal movie husband. He has a vague audit job and spends evenings killing zombies with his headphones on; I was concerned, when he said he had a couple of business trips coming up, that he'd be revealed as having an affair, but fortunately we’re spared that, and he's a genuinely good guy. 


Brother Mark Duplass (kind of impossible to see him now without thinking of Goliath Season Two, even here, where he's relatively sympathetic) is very rich and married to stick-thin, perfect wife Elaine Tan ("The ninth month is tough. I remember, I could barely make it to the gym"). In response to her various tribulations, Cody has a tendency to pepper Marlo's dialogue with the kind of black wit that feels a little over-written, as if she's been taking notes from Joss Whedon, but this attitude-first approach means scenes often have a delicious bite.


Which rather dissipates when Tully arrives. The main thing problem with Tully is that she's really annoying. Obviously, there's a reason she's so perfect, but you'd have thought Reitman and Cody would want to encourage us to see what Marlo sees in her. Instead, her dialogue is mostly facile platitudes and wiki-facts, not helped any by there being little discernible chemistry between Theron and Davis. The consequent scenes don't exactly drag, but neither do they feel energised. 


Now, one might argue – and there's no way not to talk about the twist here, but these are spoiler reviews – she doesn't need to be "likeable" because she doesn't exist. That's why she's so ridiculously attentive to Marlo's needs, and speaks in a way no one in real life speaks. But I don't think it was Reitman's intention that Davis delivers so unengagingly. This is self-evidently the Fight Club of motherhood, and probably engineered with exactly that level of pop-cynicism. But the whole thing there was Brad Pitt in charisma overdrive. Davis is too vanilla, even with the character's more manic pixie flourishes, so a character that should impress with their unreal vivacity ends up irksome. Or maybe it isn't her fault, and Cody didn't get the character down; whichever it is, there's a disconnect.


There's been some controversy over the movie's turn, that it isn't, in fact, a sensitive portrait of postnatal depression, but is rather a Hollywood version of postnatal psychosis (the first rule of Tully is: You do not talk about postnatal depression). There's something to this, to the extent that in twist pictures the tail wags the dog, and any other content necessarily becomes secondary to what you're building to, or working back from. Instead of how insightful I am, the pictures architecture revolves around how clever I am. And in this case the insightfulness is dragged down because the cleverness isn't that clever or revealing. 


Certainly not enough to justify Theron thinking she needed to go full method for the part, gaining 3½ stone. Some people – Eddie Murphy, say – would rely on acting and a fat suit, and thus bypass the year-and-a-half it took to remove the weight afterwards. Theron's really good, and always elevates anything she's in, but in this instance Reitman and Cody didn't deserve her. Tully would have been a much better movie without the gimmick.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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