Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 11, 2018

‘Tully’ a lesson in empathy for those who still need one

I once came home from work to find my newborn daughter fast asleep in her infant seat. Her mother was collapsed on the couch, looking like she hadn’t slept in a month.

Mom warned me not to wake up the baby, but my bubble of oblivion shielded me from her pleas, and I brushed my daughter’s cheek with my finger. I couldn’t help it! She looked adorable. And then she was fidgeting and fussing, like nearly every waking moment of her short life.

The expression on my wife’s face said, “I believe in the sanctity of life, but if I had the energy to get up I’d choke you with her pacifier.”

My daughter’s mother and I are no longer married. But that’s beside the point. I told you this story to suggest why I initially felt like I might be the least-qualified person on the planet to review the new comedy-drama, “Tully,” a film about a woman drowning in postpartum depression.

I had no point of reference for what the lead character, Marlo, goes through. She’s either over 40 or pushing it, already a mom twice over and about to pop again. Child No. 3 was unplanned – SURPRISE! – and she’s less than thrilled about hitting the reset button, especially while she’s learning how to take care of her autistic son.

I had an easier time identifying with the dad, Drew, who often sweeps in from work, or sweeps out to work, kissing his wife on the forehead as he comes and goes.

I knew Drew and I were kindred souls when Marlo dropped a microwaved dinner in front of him after a really hellacious day, and he said, “Frozen pizza. Awesome.” The look on Marlo’s face said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty, but if the pizza cutter were within reach, you’d be dead.”

While I might not have been properly empathetic to Marlo’s plight, I could tell she was at the end of her rope. I had Charlize Theron to thank for that. Not only is Theron a talented actress, she gained 50 pounds for the role and ate around the clock during filming to keep the weight on.

When she peels off her shirt at the dinner table because her son has spilled water on it and plops back in her chair – all the added weight on brazen display – I knew this was one of those rare performances where the actress had committed to the role in a special way, like Christian Bale emaciating himself for “The Machinist.”

I also knew the overworked, undersexed Marlo needed help. So, when the youthful Tully, a night nanny, knocks on the front door late one night, you can almost feel the relief wash over her. After some initial hesitancy, Marlo climbs the stairs to her bedroom, lies down and sinks into a deep sleep.

Tully isn’t just there to take care of the baby, though; she’s also there to care for Marlo. And she does a bang-up job. As she and Marlo bond and Marlo emerges from the depths of depression, “Tully” goes from being a film about the travails of motherhood to being a movie about the struggles of the modern woman.

Eventually, I stopped trying to relate to Marlo’s plight and just gave myself over to the capable hands of two other talented people: screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Young Adult”) and director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Young Adult”).

At least one character in a Cody screenplay must carry deep wisdom about the world that changes the perceptions of everyone she encounters. In this film, Tully serves as Cody’s conduit, allowing her to pour out her keen insight on not only Marlo but audiences as well.

“Tully” is packed with clever writing. Many of the best lines are darker than I was expecting for a film marketed as a comedy:

Marlo: “Girls heal.”

Tully: “No, we don’t. We might look like we’re all better, but if you look close, we’re covered in concealer.”

Cody wrapped many of her best lines in the kind of wry humor few screenwriters have mastered as well as she has:

Marlo: “Your twenties are great, but then your thirties come around the corner like a garbage truck at 5 a.m.”

Reitman directs “Tully” with a soft-but-expert touch. He seems to place the camera where it needs to be without doing anything flashy and allows the drama and humor to unfold.

Reitman doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of Cody’s screenplay, either. I admire his and Theron’s bravery in showing Marlo exhausted, without make-up, slumped back in a chair with an electric breast pump attached to each breast.

This is what motherhood does to some women, “Tully” says as part of its mission to bust myths. Pregnant women don’t glow, they don’t see every child as a blessing from heaven and unsightly things happen to their bodies.

Going deeper, this is what society does to some women, Cody says. Not all women aspire to shatter the glass ceiling or be a soccer mom, and society’s expectations do unsightly things to their minds, bodies and spirits.

Reitman must work some kind of magic with his actors and actresses. I don’t recall there being a bad performance in any of his films; rather, his cast members always seem to be operating at the height of their craft.

That’s saying a lot in Theron’s case. Not only has she won over 50 awards for her film acting, she’s been nominated for well over twice that number of accolades.

I believe Theron will be adding even more awards to her trophy case for her work in “Tully.” Not only did she physically transform herself after appearances as a lithe action hero in “Atomic Blonde” and “The Fate of the Furious,” but she embodies Marlo’s dilemma from the inside out.

Has any other actress ever provided a more complete and accurate portrayal of motherhood, from her body language to the self-alienation visible in her eyes as she looks in the mirror?

“Tully” will be in theaters Mother’s Day weekend. But don’t go in expecting a sugary breeze like the 2016 “Mother’s Day” starring Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. As MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher wrote in her review of “Tully,” “This is a movie that rolls its eyes and barks out snark in the face of all the clichés about motherhood.”

Rather, “Tully” takes a critical look at being a woman today and the impossible standards women place on themselves, often in response to the expectations of others. And it does this while being funny, witty and, in the end, moving. What better film to see as we celebrate and honor our mothers?