Jason Reitman’s career began with four very good to great movies in a row. The wicked satire Thank You For Smoking, The massive out of left-field hit Juno, the humane corporate drama Up In The Air, and the criminally underseen Young Adult.
The only other director I can think of in recent times to come out of the box that hot is Quentin Tarantino. Even then, Tarantino had the trifle Four Rooms, of which he was responsible for one quarter of, between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Volume 1. While Tarantino’s first four caused more of a stir, it was less clean in comparison to Reitman’s.
Then something came free for Reitman. Labor Day and Men, Women, & Children moved neither critic nor moviegoer. Four years have gone by after Men opened and pretty much closed on October 17, 2014. I don’t know how intentional the break was, but I can report with no small measure of satisfaction, that the eleven seasons that have passed since then have served him well.
Because Tully is tremendous.
In some ways, Tully is not the easiest film to describe for two very specific reasons. First, a film that focuses on the seemingly mundane life of a middle-aged woman about to add a third child to her family can easily sound clichéd or dull when discussing the plot.
Yes, Marlo is frustrated with her life. She has a son with behavioral issues, a husband who is aloof, a house she can’t keep up with, and all before the newborn arrives. If Pedro Almodovar hadn’t already used the title to great effect, this film could easily be slightly paraphrased and called Wom(a)n On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Which may sound like something you think you’ve already seen, or maybe something you simply don’t want to see.
However, the magic is always in the telling. And I’m here to say there is much magic afoot in Tully. The way Reitman showcases each scene is both specific and loose. There are little glances and expressions traded between Charlize Theron’s Marlo and her husband, well played by Ron Livingston, that tell you volumes about their relationship. There’s the way toys are strewn across the floor and stains are not cleaned from the carpet.
The very home they live in is a character unto itself. The sad siding, the outdated wood paneling. The house is as tired as they are. This is a film not afraid to look real, and even crummy.
Despite the thus far unsavory details I have shared, this is a genuinely entertaining film. After Juno and Young Adult, this is the third film Diablo Cody has written for Reitman. I know I just left the theater a little over an hour ago, but I’m thinking it’s her best of the triptych.
There’s plenty of the quick wit Cody is known for, but here it’s far less stylized than in Juno and to a lesser degree, Young Adult. The humor is unforced and the characters feel very much written as individuals. It’s still Diablo Cody, of course. It’s just that it feels more natural than before.
The introduction of the title character (the pitch perfect Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny hired by Marlo’s well-to-do brother, could have come off as the sort of thing that only happens in movies. Tully is a character with a capital C. Young, literate, sexy, Zen, and immune to the thought of invading one’s space.
In a different movie, she might have propelled the film in a more pedestrian direction. A “hot nanny shakes up the household” kinda thing. And while in some ways that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily play out the way you might think. In fact, I’m sure it doesn’t.
The relationship between the two women is unconventional, but also just what Marlo appears to need. She feels more rested and alive than she has in what seems to be an ancient age. Something that all around her take note of.
At this point, I feel the need to speak on how extraordinary the work of Charlize Theron is. I’ve always thought of her as a fine actress, but on occasion — for reasons unclear to me, she’s often left me a bit cold. I have now decided that I am an idiot.
Theron is just as at home in the skin of a woman who is feeling betrayed by her body, her husband, her children, and life itself as she is playing Furiosa in Mad Max or the Atomic Blonde. Her range is magnificent. She is truly one of our best working actors.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t dwell a bit more on Mackenzie Davis. I loved her in Halt And Catch Fire, was transfixed by her bit part in Blade Runner: 2049, and knocked out by her here. I’m starting to think she should be in everything. I don’t care if it’s a true story about a group of hairy men on an expedition in the Arctic. Room should be found.
If Tully had been nothing but what I’ve laid out so far, a domestic drama with comedic elements, it would have been terrific. There’s plenty here to sustain that sort of story.
Reitman doesn’t settle for that. In the final stretch, Tully reveals some strain of her own. She too is at a crossroads of sorts. At that point I still felt like I knew where the film might be going. I was wrong. Which brings me to the second reason this film is not the easiest to review. There’s what most will call a “twist” that takes place near the end of the film. One that might result in some resistance from some who see it. For a moment, I was unsure. Then I retraced the film’s steps and found that the clues had been laid out from the moment that Tully enters the home.
No fair saying more. Just know that it’s a bold choice, and the type of thing that only a filmmaker confident in their abilities would follow through on.
Which Reitman once again seems to be. Tully might look like a safe reentry on the surface, but it turns out to be so much more than it appears to be. In some ways, it’s the best kind of film. It gives you not just what you want, but even more you didn’t know you wanted.
That’s magic, my friends. And as the film closes with one of the loveliest images you will see all year, it becomes clear, Reitman’s magic is back. Maybe better than ever.