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2 Women Share The Stress And Sleeplessness Of Motherhood In 'Tully'

May 4, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 2:51 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody first collaborated on the teen pregnancy comedy "Juno" and then went on to make "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron. The three - director, writer and star - reunite for "Tully," in which Theron plays an exhausted mom who hires a night nanny played by Mackenzie Davis to help out with the baby. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The intimate drama "Tully" centers on postpartum depression, a clinical term that doesn't begin to capture the alienation that the movie's main character feels after giving birth to her third child. Charlize Theron plays the mother, Marlo, a first name I've never heard of for a woman outside Marlo Thomas, who in the '60s sitcom "That Girl" was the archetypal effervescent single gal. I wonder if that's who Diablo Cody, the screenwriter, was thinking of.

Cody's Marlo was once that girl but is now weighed down figuratively and literally since Theron gained 50 pounds for the part and vividly evokes the helplessness and self-disgust of someone who no longer feels at home in her body. When the baby girl arrives, Marlo already has a daughter, as well as a son with an unspecified neurological issue who's on the brink of getting kicked out of elementary school for disruptive behavior. Her husband, played by Ron Livingston, is a nonpresence. Even when he isn't traveling for his floundering startup, he doesn't seem to regard child care as his responsibility.

The title character enters 20 or so minutes into the film. Tully is a night nurse, a woman hired by Marlo's rich, concerned brother to arrive after dark, sit beside the baby and - when required - bring the infant to her sleeping mother's breast. Marlo expects someone older, but Tully - played by Mackenzie Davis - is a 26-year-old free spirit with uncanny insight into Marlo's divided self. Tully shows great sympathy, but Marlo's feelings are all mixed up. Is she being seduced - mocked? Tully gets in so close, it's a little creepy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULLY")

MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Tully) You seem like a great mom.

CHARLIZE THERON: (As Marlo) Great moms organize class parties and casino night. They bake cupcakes that look like minions - all the things I'm just too tired to do. Honestly, even getting dressed just feels exhausting. I open my closet, and I just think, didn't I just do this?

DAVIS: (As Tully) Yeah, but that's the downside of living on a planet with a short solar day. Although, Jupiter's even shorter.

THERON: (As Marlo) You're like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth-graders.

EDELSTEIN: Diablo Cody has never written a relationship between two people as tantalizing as the one between Marlo and Tully. Their encounters turn what might have been a glib, sour comedy into something strange and mythic in which Marlo's dreams of mermaids sit side by side with the most mundane demands of childcare. Glib and sour is how I'd describe Cody's previous collaborations with director Jason Reitman - "Juno," which I knew would be a hit even as I cringed at its self-conscious one-liners, and "Young Adult," starring Theron as a selfish woman on a visit to her tacky hometown.

Reitman and Cody seem to enjoy scoring points off their characters. And the first part of "Tully" centers on other people's insensitivity towards the desperately unhappy Marlo. There's the woman at a coffee shop who disapproves of the still-pregnant Marlo ordering a decaf because it still has trace amounts of caffeine. There's Marlo's rich brother's smug wife who points out that the chicken fingers Marlo's son is eating have growth hormones, which is not just rude but deeply unfeeling since it's all Marlo can do to get the kid to eat anything.

But the cheap shots fall by the wayside when Tully appears, and the movie contracts and deepens. Mackenzie Davis is magnetic. She changes the movie's rhythms for the stranger. And she and Charlize Theron make beautiful, mysterious music together. Watch Marlo flinch in response to Tully's prying questions about her past active sex life and present nonexistent one - about unfulfilled ambitions versus smothering realities. Cody seems to be writing from her unconscious. I shivered when Tully eases Marlo to sleep - saying of the infant girl, she'll grow a little overnight. So will we.

We're subtly prepared for Marlo's desperate attempt to keep up with Tully in the final act when she and the young woman roar off towards Lower Manhattan to an underworld of drinking and drugs and thrash metal that's both exhilarating and scary. The final scenes of "Tully" are rude, shocking, insane and, at the same time, warm and reassuring. Some essential, primal drama has been enacted, and now everyone on screen and off can get a good night's sleep.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, chef Lidia Bastianich tells her story, from growing up on the family farm where they raised and grew their own food to escaping communists who took over their region of Italy after World War II - becoming refugees, immigrating to America, opening her first restaurant and getting her own cooking show. She has a new memoir. Hope you can join us.

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