Tully and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Jason Reitman
So hey! Remember when Jason Reitman was the big rising star in Hollywood? It doesn’t seem like THAT long ago, and yet here we are with a film that has gotten very little buzz despite being directed by him as well as being written by Diablo Cody and starring Charlize Theron. You’d think there’d be a LITTLE more buzz considering how much talent is behind it, but for some reason it was left to languish in the wake of Avengers: Infinity Wars where it will surely remain in obscurity until it’s dumped on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Still, a lot of really excellent films have suffered similar fates against the might of big blockbusters, and since when has box office success been in any way an indicator of a film’s overall worth? Does this manage to be a great film to cleanse the palate after the latest Marvel feature, or are you better off rewatching that in hopes of getting a better ending? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the day to day life of Marlo (Charlize Theron) who’s just about to have a third child and is honestly not handling things as well as she claims to be. Sure her other two kids Jonah and Sarah (Asher Miles Fallica and Lia Frankland) are doing… fine, and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is doing… fine, but things are only gonna get more difficult with a third mouth to feed; especially one that’s gonna be screaming and pooping itself for at least a couple of years. That’s why Marlo’s brother (Mark Duplass) and his wive (Elaine Tan) have gotten her a PERFECT baby shower gift which is the services of a Night Nanny. What’s a Night Nanny you may ask? Well she’s a nanny, and follow me here… who comes at night. Basically, she’ll take care of the baby when you’re trying to get some sleep so that you can start the day fully rested and ready to be the best mom you can be! Well to me that sounds like a brilliant idea, but Marlo is skeptical at first. Let’s see how long it takes… okay about two weeks before she gets desperate on a particularly bad day and calls them in. Said nanny is named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) who is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT! She’s brilliant, she’s loving, and sure she MAY be a little over eager, but she’s everything Marlo needs to get her life back on track which has been noticeably hollow since she became a mother. She’s got no interests of her own, no particular hobbies, and doesn’t even seem to have the energy to stick up for herself which is PROBABLY some red flags to much deeper issues, but Tully manages to be at least a good influence if not an outright cure for her woes. Will Marlo find her zest for life again now that she can rely on someone else to help her out? Where did this MYSTERIOUS Tully come from, and how can one person be so awesome at taking care of babies? Is parenthood the one challenge that ultra-badass Charlize Theron is incapable of overcoming!?
This may be a bit of a cop out because I’m still not quite sure how to feel about this, but I get the strong sense that this movie wasn’t made for me. Usually I do enjoy Diablo Cody’s work (United States of Tara is one of the most underrated shows out there), and while Jason Riteman has been rather middling in the last few years, there’s no denying the absurdly good track record he had at the outset of his career with Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air which are honestly some of the best films of that decade. It’s just… I don’t know, it’s not BAD but even after trying to adjust my expectations to the mindset of someone who would be more interested in this kind of story, I just couldn’t find a vein for this movie to hit. Are Diablo Codey fans gonna find the snappy dialogue she’s known for? Will Jason Riteman fans that are looking for a return to form flock to this one? I guess if you’re a Charlize Theron fan you’ll find a solid performance from her, but if you only know about her more recent work like Mad Max, Atomic Blonde, and Fate of the Furious, you certainly aren’t gonna find anything like that here. It’s honestly the kind of family drama I wouldn’t bother with because it’d show up on Hallmark or ABC Family (is it even called that anymore?), and yet this got a full theatrical release and an absurd amount of talent behind it. Maybe I’m so far from the kind of person this film is meant to appeal to that I just can’t get my head around it, but all I saw was a mildly interesting yet utterly miserable existence that I’m sure is true for many people but in and of itself didn’t have much appeal to me. Not every movie has to be a fantastical escape from the banalities of everyday life, but if I’m sitting there not particularly enjoying myself or learning much at all, then it’s hardly a compelling or enriching use of my time.
So before we try to analyze this on any deep critical level, I should at least give a bit of background as to why this movie as a whole just did absolutely nothing for me. It’s true that I tend to skew more towards fantasy, exaggeration, and stylism when it comes to movies that I enjoy which means that dramas, ennui, and non-comedic slice of life stories need to put in that little extra effort for me to get behind them. I’ve certainly enjoyed movies like Ladybird and Table 19, but even those are more comedies than they dramas while this is just… depressing to watch. I’ve NEVER been one of those people who thinks babies and toddlers are cute and having kids has at no point been a goal of mine; so much so that in middle school I completely ducked out of this one assignment we had to do for sex ed. While everyone else took home a robot baby to take care of for like a week or whatever (it would cry at night and you had to “feed” it or some crap), I just straight up refused to do it and did a written assignment for like half the credit. Maybe it was immature to just ASSUME I’d never fuck up and have a kid too soon (that was basically the goal by the way; another scare tactic for teenagers), but I knew even back then that I was not someone who would excel at being a parent. I’ve got too much of my own bullshit to deal with, why would I POSSIBLY want to inflict that on someone else!? The point is that outside of VERY few exceptions (the ending of Knocked Up still gets to me), you’re not gonna sell me on a movie just by having kids on screen and for parenting to be an overriding theme. Then again, I don’t even know if that’s what this movie is going for. It strips so much of the romanticism out of being a parent that I can’t imagine what the appeal is supposed to be, outside of empathy I guess. There’s a place for pretty much any form of artistic expression, and so making a film that affirms to millions of mothers out there that it really DOES suck the life out of you to be a mother is a worthy enough ambition I suppose, but once again I’m not in that category and what I’m guessing is supposed to be affirming to its target audience is just ho-hum and exhausting to me.
Okay, so now that I’ve gotten some of my own hang-ups out of the way, let’s at least TRY and be a bit more critical than I DIDN’T LIKE IT and go over what the film is TRYING to do and where I feel it falls a bit short. I thought the narrative was rather muddled as it brought up a few plot points without really paying them off. There’s this whole mermaid motif that never really amounts to anything (I was hoping we’d learn it was something she was passionate about before having kids, like some artwork she did or books she wrote about them), but even worse is when it comes to her son Jonah whose whole issue at school is just abandoned by the time we enter the third act. I’m also not sure how I should feel about his portrayal in this as the film seems to code him as on the Autism spectrum, yet bizarrely makes it explicitly clear that he ISN’T on the spectrum. It’s the same basic thing they do with Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory (“I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.”), though the goal HERE doesn’t seem to be to tell rather insensitive jokes ABOUT people on the spectrum while having a rather unconvincing cover for doing so. I don’t know WHAT the goal was to be frank as he never really has a conclusion to his arc which is disappointing because there were some very good moments with him; particularly a scene where he’s at a public school and meets a very sympathetic and helpful teacher. Similarly, her daughter Sarah and her husband Drew are just kind of shoved to the background which is fine enough I guess if we’re supposed to be focusing on Tully and her nurse, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to show us what she ACTUALLY gets out of this life other than pain and misery. Compare this to something like This Is Forty which isn’t a PERFECT film by any stretch but does a great job of giving both spouses a lot of depth and personality while also having enough time for the kids to feel like more than plot convenient background objects. Oh, and that ending! BOY was THAT an odd choice! I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a straight up Shyamalan moment that I wasn’t expecting in this movie which I GUESS at least makes this movie somewhat memorable, but it has the same problem that many twists have; i.e. it’s surprising in the moment but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny on repeat viewings. They don’t do a TERRIBLE job of covering their tracks, but there are a few big plot-holes that you’ll notice if you decide to watch it again. Not only that, it also kind of undercuts a few things that I did like in the movie.
Speaking of which, I might as well mention a few of the film’s good points even if they didn’t really save this from being a rather unpleasant viewing experience. Charlize Theron gives about as good a performance as can be expected with the role even if I found the character thoroughly unengaging on any real level, and the rest of the cast does a decent job as well. I also liked that they were integrating some NEW parenting stuff into this movie which you rarely ever see unless the goal is to dismiss these new practices in favor of OLD FASHIONED METHODS which most of the time feels needlessly hostile to modernity. Things change, attitudes change, and we learn more as time goes on, so the idea of a Night Nanny which I hadn’t even HEARD of before seems interesting and I like that the movie doesn’t really have anything bad to say about the practice itself. Then again the movie kind of balks at this in a rather weird way, so even that isn’t something to get too excited about here.
I don’t know, MAYBE I’m being too hard on this movie and it’ll hit home with its target audience. It certainly has hit home with a lot of other critics which once again puts me in the Grumpy Gus minority, but I just could not get into this movie and wanted this to be over as soon as possible. There are pieces here and there that work, but I’ve also seen those same pieces work in much more enjoyable movies, either made by Judd Apatow or by Reitman himself in his earlier films. I’d certainly suggest watching most of those before getting to this one and frankly I’d recommend just about anything else playing in theaters right now. It’s not one of the worst movies of the year, but I’ll certainly be trying to forget this movie as soon as possible. At least with colossal failures there’s SOMETHING worth remembering about it (I still giggle at just how bad The Mummy was), and this just can’t seem to manage even that much. The only way I’ll even consider watching this again is if it turns out to be a prequel to Fast and the Furiosa; a crossover between Mad Max and Fast and the Furious. What am I the only one who thinks there should be Charlize Theron Extended Universe!?
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