Charlize Theron’s second feature with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody is more sentimental than Young Adult but every bit as irreverent, which may sound like a contradiction in terms. Theron plays Marlo, the pregnant mother of an autistic kindergarden-age son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), and a nine-year-old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland). Her devotion to her children is unconditional and almost tragic in the contours of the difficulties she faces. Marlo knows that Jonah causes problems for the staff at the school he attends and is guiltily thankful they even accepted him—that is, until the principal brings up the possibility that he might be better served somewhere else. This early in the story you can see her slow meltdown begin, and though Cody cagily deflects our attention from the real issue a pattern is set that keeps the viewer off balance.
As usual, Cody’s dialogue is clever and pointed, but her past movies dealt in characters with flaws of their own making. Marlo has her personality problems, but she is mainly a victim of her surroundings, no matter how supportive those surroundings can be. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is mostly removed from the parenting sphere since he’s busy running a business that was set up for him by his wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). In other words, he has his own challenges, and for some reason Cody and Reitman give him a pass. He loves his wife and his kids, and he helps when he can, but given the magnitude of Marlo’s slow descent into self-doubt, he seems almost willfully clueless about her situation.
Oddly, and, more to the point, tellingly, it’s Craig who offers a solution. He’ll pay for a “night nanny” named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) after the new baby is born who will watch the kids while Marlo takes time to collect her wits and unwind—maybe even have some unguarded sex with her husband (an episode that Cody treats with her usual measure of cynical humor). Predictably, Marlo and Tully bond to the exclusion of almost every other character in the movie. Some will say Tully, who is cheerful, resourceful, and infinitely patient, is too good to be true, a quality that Reitman plays up too much, deepening the predictability of the story arc as it veers toward something ominous and not funny at all.
Reitman manages to keep these thorny issues in line, but as a writer Cody isn’t rounded enough to do bittersweet. It’s one or the other with her, and while the film isn’t sour, it can be inadvertently manipulative. Tully is one of the more thoughtful takes on modern motherhood as a state of mind separated from it natal primacy. It’s all about expectations, but by concentrating only on two sensibilities’ approach to the issue, it’s limiting to the point of claustrophobia.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001).
Tully home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Tully Productions LLC