Monday, May 14, 2018

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY: a review of "Tully"

Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
*** (three stars)

It is a strange thing to say but I have to admit that despite the greatness that I have seen this year with the likes of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," two spectacular entries from Marvel's superheroes and Wes Anderson's latest and absolutely brilliant stop-motion fantasia, "Isle Of Dogs," I am more than anxious and ready to see a film that was about...well...people.

The return of Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman, the team who has already delivered the outstanding teen pregnancy film "Juno" (2007) and the even better, decidedly darker and teeth baring "Young Adult" (2011), is exceedingly most welcome and anticipated for me and for a good stretch, "Tully," their third collaboration to date, showcases their uniquely sharp, perceptive and probing explorations into the lives and times of 21st century girls and women.

Yet, even as good as "Tully" is, the film is not quite in the same league as their previous two films together. Not in terms of content, which remains as provocative as ever, but solely in the fullness of its execution, which left me wanting considerably when it was all said and done. That being said, "Tully" is a slice of life film that just may delve a bit closer to the bone than you may realize--especially for any of  you who happen to be Mothers. In seeking films that are about people and life as it is honestly lived, any collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody would be more than worth your time and attention and "Tully" indeed fits the bill.

"Tully" stars Charlize Theron in an absolutely searing performance as Marlo, a not-so-young and severely overwhelmed Mother of two children, including her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is clearly existing somewhere upon the Autism spectrum (yet is still undiagnosed) and prone to frequent tantrums and meltdowns, making him a strong risk for  being expelled from  his school due to the lack of resources to properly aid his needs.

Her loving yet essentially inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is barely present as he works during the day and detaches by gaming at night, therefore leaving Marlo to her own devices with the child rearing, that will soon grow to three children due to a pregnancy that may have been unplanned, and the housework, which has become a impossibility of keeping up with. 

By the arrival of the third child, and with Marlo gradually losing her grip due to sheer unending exhaustion, she and Drew are given a suggestion by her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), a telephone number of a "night nurse," a figure who will aid Marlo with the baby and the house between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6 30 a.m., thus allowing Marlo to sleep.

While at first a tad reluctant, Marlo eventually makes the phone call and soon thereafter, in the night, at their doorstep arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the very "night nurse" who will help re-structure Marlo's life.

That is indeed the basic plot line of Jason Reitman's "Tully" and I will refrain from revealing more so as to not produce spoilers regarding some surprises along the way as well as seriously upending revelations that occur during the film's final third. What I am able to convey to you is that the film strongly feels very much of a piece with both "Juno" and "Young Adult," again making the cinematic partnership of both Reitman and Diablo Cody notable, refreshing, compelling and artful.

Essentially, the first element about the film that impressed me greatly was the fact that I really do not think that I have seen Motherhood depicted in such an unglamorous, unsentimental fashion. In fact, Reitman and Cody's presentation suggests that "Tully" just may be the first film, this way of the independent cinema leanings towards the mainstream, that is delivering Motherhood at its most truthful, and they could not have possessed a better conduit than the terrific, downright fearless Charlize Theron.

For an actress of Charlize Theron's status and statuesque beauty, it is more than easy to possibly forget just how serious of an actress she actually happens to be. Just as she achieved so extraordinarily in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), Theron has again undergone a full physical transformation in order to embody the character of Marlo on the surface.

Yes, Theron has gained a significant amount of body weight to give the realistic appearance of a woman's figure after her third childbirth but even further, it is a performance which contains not a stitch of vanity as she is more than willing to appear as "unattractive" as possible. At one point, her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) questions pointedly "What's wrong with your body?" as Marlo is seated at the family dinner table in her dirty bra, her stomach protruding, her torso sweaty and filthy, her unwashed hair and blankly cold visage suggesting something akin to catatonia.

While that line of dialogue receives a brutal laugh, it is presented at nowhere near the expense of Marlo's dilemma. Is it basically the question Marlo is asking of herself internally as she regards the person she once was in her 20s perhaps, while comparing her to the person she is at this point of her life. Deeply loving her family but questioning if she can even survive the endless responsibilities of three young children in constant states and levels of very specific needs.

What is there for her to do when Jonah unleashes an explosive letdown when presented the prospect of parking in a different lot at school? Or how is she to keep herself, including her rising fury, together when during a meeting with Jonah's school Principal (Gameela Wright), she is facing down the reality of Jonah's expulsion despite the protests pf how much their family is loved by the school community?

And then, there is the downright masterful sequence early in the film where Reitman presents a brilliant montage, which to me suggested the furiously compulsive, potentially fatal montage of Roy Scheider's punishing daily regimen as depicted in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979).   Yet unlike that film's cocaine addled tortured artist/filmmaker/choreographer, in "Tully," we witness the constant yet debilitating normalcy of Marlo's life.

Feeding and pumping and changing the diapers and repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseum, Marlo's body essentially becoming less human and more machine, albeit a machine that is threatening to completely malfunction at any given moment. In fact, as I regarded Theron as Marlo, and especially in the film still image that adorns this posting, I could not help but to think of Marlo as being precisely the type of woman that Theron's one-armed warrior driver character of Imperator Furiosa was attempting to rescue in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015).

The magic of Charlize Theron's performance is not simply the physical aspect, which again does convey the physical results of not simply childbirth but the mental and physical fatigue and even anguish that Marlo is drowning inside of. Theron performs Marlo from the inside out giving us a character that at all times feels tremendously lived in. Nothing ever felt to be prefabricated, hyperbolic or remotely dishonest whatsoever and truthfully, her performance is so richly layered and compulsively watchable, I sincerely hope that she is remembered next year during awards season.

For the second major element that I deeply appreciated witnessing within "Tully" was indeed the relationship that formulates between Marlo and Tully. These are two women at completely different life stages, that are refreshingly not at odds with each other but ones that feel to be powerfully supportive, understanding and non-judgmental and also remarkably in sync despite their obvious differences, Tully in her late 20's, often filled with sage like wisdom despite her lively, carefree attitude and Marlo, possibly around 40 years old and consumed by her life and dilapidated state of mind and physicality.

As with scenes presented within both "Juno" and "Young Adult" and especially in "Up In The Air" (2009), Reitman's finest film to date, we are given lovely moments of Marlo and Tully simple talking and relating to each other in a fashion that truly showcases how real, 21st century women speak, think and feel. Sadly, still such a rarity in cinema but thankfully, we do have a writer as strong as Diablo Cody who is able to have her stories realized for mass audiences. Representation matters which makes her creative presence essential.

As it stands, Jason Reitman's "Tully" is a fairly quiet film. An especially perceptive and observant experience that unfolds leisurely and due to its overall tone, it often feels quite gentle...yet deceptively so. In fact, Reitman and Cody's story is exceedingly more harrowing than it may seem and as previously stated, I do not think that I have witnessed a film portrayal of Motherhood so grueling, so unflinching in its defiant lack of romanticism. In fact, it could be argued that the film is not explicitly a film about Motherhood per se but more truthfully, a film about sleep deprivation, postpartum depression and even debilitating mental illness, a quality this film has already received some criticism based upon its depiction.

As for me, I had no issue with how this aspect was necessarily presented but how it was handled ultimately, especially once the film reaches its final third and those aforementioned plot developments of which I will not spoil for you. What bothered me, and increasingly so now that I have had ample time to ponder the film since seeing it, is the rather rapid and downright tidy way "Tully" concludes, wrapping itself up in a bow that is distressingly too clean based upon everything that has already occurred in the story.

In fact, I think that "Tully," which runs a scant 96 minutes, could have benefited from actually being longer--perhaps a full two hours--a length that would have allowed Reitman and Cody to give as much weight to the film's back end as they did with the film's beginning and middle. Granted, there was nothing that necessarily derailed the film for me. I certainly did not feel cheated. I just left the theater with a feeling of "And that's it?" A feeling of unfulfillment. A feeling that not every storytelling stone had been effectively as possible. The very stones that can change a good film into a GREAT film and all elements considered, "Tully" is a good film. 

Regardless, I do not wish to deter you from seeing a film this unique and honest, even though I felt the final sections were too pat and simplified. What Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody achieved for their third collaboration is a film experience that is most welcome, especially as films of this sort are becoming increasingly in short supply these days. As I have stated many, many times upon this site, I just do not see the point in having films about the super human exist at the expense of other films.

In fact, if "Tully" accomplished anything, it is the compassionate understanding that simply being human, especially being someone's Mother and surviving to tell the tale, is possibly the most heroic thing one can do.

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