In the interest of disclosing my biases, I should point out that I have never, ever, liked Diablo Cody. The first hour of Tully almost convinced me that I needed to reassess her work, but the third went so far astray that, if anything, my prior estimation of her oeuvre should have been harsher. Don’t get me wrong, I like quirky, dialogue-heavy indie dramedies as much as the next person; but Cody has long been an exemplar of a very specific tone that was championed in the late nineties and early aughts, only to be justifiably marginalized amid the unfortunate decline of the midbudget American independent production.
If there had to be casualties in the course of that particular calamity, I’m glad that Cody was among them. While I’ve found her longtime co-conspirator Jason Reitman somewhat less objectionable in a general sense — at least on his own — I have yet to identify a redeeming quality between them when the two are working in concert. They seem to bring out the worst in each other, both narratively and stylistically, and the net result is a series of films, following Juno and Young Adult, that can most generously be described as tediously precocious. Tully is, unfortunately, no exception to this established pattern.
It’s not all bad news for Tully, although its tepid box office receipts would indicate otherwise. Cody’s story tackles the subject of motherhood from an angle of postnatal depression, and there is something refreshing about the openness with which her script re-examines the perennial trope of the sainted mother. Charlize Theron gives a powerfully dynamic performance as Marlo, the beleaguered mother of three harried by the demands of caring for two young children, including a son with special needs, while also grappling with the stressors of bringing home a newborn. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is too busy with work — and video games — to pitch in, and so Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) gifts her a night nanny, the eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Things follow in a predictably Mary-pixie-dream-girl-Poppins direction from there.
But then there’s a third-act plot twist of M. Night Shyamalan proportions, at least in terms of its eye-roll-worthiness. Tully takes its strong central performances, competent if uninspired and largely styleless direction from Reitman, and novel perspective on motherhood and squanders all of that potential on a narrative contrivance so insipid that it becomes almost interesting by virtue of its wrongheadedness. Almost. Ultimately, this is a film that is alternately cynical and saccharine in all the wrong places, one which undercuts its own message with a desire to overcomplicate rather than elucidate. Cody has taken a character sketch that could have provided a relatable and humanizing counterpoint to decades of cinematic disingenuousness on the topic of motherhood and rendered it effectively null and void with a few misguided story points. But hey, at least there are no hamburger phones in this one. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Fine Arts Theatre, Regal Biltmore Grande.