By Adam Nayman
Dir. Jason Reitman, U.S., Focus Features
At a certain point in one’s love affair with the cinema, the only thing worse than having your pettiest prejudices confirmed is when they’re upended, and so Tully had me worried for a while. The first 20 minutes of Jason Reitman’s seventh feature are nicely turned and reasonably diverting, and I feared the worst: that one of my least favorite working filmmakers—my own personal bête noire—had finally figured how to use his cloven hooves to apply something like a deft touch. That newfound, gentle tactility is literalized in the opening shots of Marlo (Charlize Theron) using a hairbrush to methodically massage the bare limbs of her nervy eight-year-old son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica); the impression of a mother connecting protectively with her child is palpable, as is the sense that, for whatever reason, she knows not to push too hard. The soft-focus lighting and soft-rock accompaniment are lazy, but the image is tender and specific in a way that lifts it mostly out of the realm of cliché.
As it turns out, the relative skill with which Tully has been assembled—with kudos to cinematographer Eric Steelberg for his dusky color palette; editor Stefan Grube for some metronomically precise cutting in a series of domestic montages; and, yes, Reitman the Younger for using pop music more adroitly than usual (notably a suite of Cyndi Lauper songs to score a nighttime drive to Brooklyn) and actually locating and maintaining a non-obnoxious tone for the duration—is beside the point. Even the most resourceful, imaginative filmmaker would be hard-pressed to redeem Diablo Cody’s screenplay, specifically the lengths to which the writer goes to disguise her story’s true nature, and also the underlying reasons for the charade, which are unconvincing and in bad faith.
Such is the incurable glibness of filmmakers whose attempts to produce hip, mainstream-adjacent entertainments keep real artistry safely at bay. One way to look at this conscientiously mature, strategically magic-realist movie is as its creators’ most ambitious joint effort to date, yet it’s actually this same, superficial “daring” that points up their work’s underlying lack of real imagination. Whatever is affecting or true in Tully is in the service of a gimmick, and not the other way around, and since it’s impossible to talk about what’s wrong with Tully without divulging the nature of said gimmick, I will do so bluntly (there’s enough disingenuous goldbricking onscreen). The film’s title character, a “night nanny” played by a lightly pixie-dusted Mackenzie Davis, hired by Marlo’s wealthy brother-in-law, Craig (Mark Duplass), to help her through the first few sleep-deprived months of motherhood following the birth of her (unplanned and only grudgingly welcomed) third child, is a figment of her client’s imagination.
Eat your heart out, M. Night Shyamalan: considering the strenuously poetic mermaid motif that runs throughout the film, we might call this Reitman’s Lady in the Water). Now, I should say that this twist is not exactly hard to figure out, considering first of all that Davis has exactly zero scenes with any actors in the film other than Theron—a disparity that becomes apparent pretty quickly—and also that her appearances at Marlo’s house are shot and edited like dreams, right down to the visitor’s millennial-Mary-Poppins perfection. She arrives at night, expertly takes the infant off her hostess’s hands and sends Marlo to bed in a kind of relaxed trance, secure in the knowledge that all will be well downstairs until she wakes in the morning to a gentle murmur on the baby monitor.
Tully’s entirely ephemeral nature is so telegraphed, in fact, that I wondered if Reitman and Cody would have the inspiration—or the guts—to not structure the movie as a long lead-up to the climactic “reveal” that Marlo has been spending her nights alone fantasizing about her new best friend. Instead, they insist on futzing clumsily around the surprise, leading to all kinds of logical fallacies as well as artistic ones. For instance, it’s shown time and again that Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), lives in a state of exhaustion that runs parallel to his wife’s, and we’re supposed to believe that his fixation on work, which has driven a wedge into their marriage and sex life, would also keep him from asking any questions about the night nanny. On paper this is a decent idea, but onscreen it’s unbearably contrived. It’s not believable for a second that this distracted but decent man wouldn’t ask to meet the person caring for his baby. (Livingston also bears the brunt of Reitman and Cody’s most dishonest bit of narrative hide-and-seek, which briefly turns Tully into a bedroom-farce version of Fight Club; I am Jason’s secret yearning to be David Fincher).
The larger issue, meanwhile, is the way that Cody’s conceit whimsically instrumentalizes mental illness, treating postpartum psychosis, referred to in the film as postpartum depression, as a storytelling device, as well as a vehicle for Marlo’s self-actualization. Tully isn’t just not real, she’s a projection of Marlo’s younger self, arriving in a moment of need to help her connect to lost ideals and make peace with the conventional trajectory of her adult life. Marlo is, in effect, talking to herself while conversing with Tully, and to again give credit where it’s due, the two actresses match up nicely: there are subtle synchronicities of body language and movement that offset the heavier visual and verbal clues being dropped all over the place.
There’s a potentially lovely and poetic idea here about interiority and continuity, and how we are always with ourselves, even when we’re alone. Yet I can’t think of a major American screenwriter who consistently indulges her worst instincts more readily than Cody. For me, her best script is still Jennifer’s Body, which productively worked within and against teen-horror tropes while recognizing the lurking, pernicious evil of skinny indie-rock boys; Juno’s stylized dialogue and falsely equal-opportunity “satire” was worse than Young Adult’s sitcomized pathos, but, in both cases, a crass condescension bled through—i.e. the latter’s use of reality TV as a way of playing up its anti-heroine’s bored vapidity, which gets repeated here in scenes of the sexually frustrated Marlo watching a sleazy show called Gigolos (the IndieWire review that claimed Cody uses pop culture to “reveal her characters’ weak spots” is correct, as if scoring points off of such easy targets constitutes insight).
There is a sense that both director and writer are trying to hold back—which, again, gives the early passages detailing Marlo’s struggles with Jonah’s possible autism their own low-key authenticity—but Tully’s verbiage is finally as overwritten as its peripheral characters are under-realized. As Marlo’s sister-in-law, Elaine Tan is a walking bad-and-bougie punchline, while Duplass’s well-moneyed gregariousness is forced, although the class commentary is at least more credible than it was in Up in the Air, where Reitman quite hilariously used rough, handheld textures to convey the raw emotion of small-town folk in a movie comprised otherwise of sleek, anodyne first-class-lounge settings. Cody is in love with fleet, ping-ponging, back-and-forth hostility à la Neil Simon, and likes to write big, thunderous, self-righteous monologues for Theron, whose delivery here—as in Young Adult—goes a long way toward imbuing the pyrotechnical language with something like an actual emotional spark. Even good moments, like Marlo’s desperate, defensive dressing-down of a private-school principal expressing concern over Jonah’s eccentricities (“he’s just not a good fit”) are undermined by a show-off naughtiness. Say what you will about Martin McDonagh, but he actually knows how to make a four-letter word pop now and then.
The flip side to Cody’s profane provocations, at least in her films with Reitman, is that she requires her narratives to have pat, pleasing resolutions: this was also true of Young Adult, a great example of a cynically engineered movie about cynicism (its bite-sized insights would have been better doled out in a prestige cable series). Not only does Tully gloss over the possibly devastating consequences of Marlo’s hallucinations (the depiction of which has already angered maternal mental health professionals), but it can’t move quickly enough to erase the complications and contingencies facing its characters for no other reason than that the movie needs to end. Money, work, Jonah’s psychological condition—these difficult details all fall away instantaneously. Probably Reitman and Cody mean to say that in the face of real trauma and suffering, the people around Marlo are finally willing to make her a priority instead of leaving her to her own devices (and fantasy life), but that instant shift constitutes its own form of illusory wish fulfillment. Contrast the opening shots of Marlo with the hairbrush and their mild, disarming mystery with the coda, which shows her and Drew sharing a pair of earphone buds—on the same wavelength at last. It’s cute, and cute, finally, is what Tully aims for; too bad its aim is true.