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Tully film review: Charlize Theron shines in witty and poignant tale about motherhood

Dir: Jason Reitman, 96 mins, starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Emily Haine

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 02 May 2018 13:07 BST
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Method mam: Charlize Theron gained 50lbs to play a downtrodden mother in comedy-drama ‘Tully’
Method mam: Charlize Theron gained 50lbs to play a downtrodden mother in comedy-drama ‘Tully’ (Focus Features)

Tully may come billed as a comedy-drama but there isn’t much humour early on in the plight of the main character. The kids are screaming in the back seat. The car park is full. The mountainously pregnant Marlo (Charlize Theron) is already late for yet another meeting with the school principal about her son’s disruptive behaviour in the kindergarten class.

Marlo feels like “an abandoned trash barge”. She is exhausted by the rigmarole of domesticity and is about to have a third, unplanned, child. Money is tight. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works long hours as an auditor and is as worn down as she is. Their house is a mess. There are food stains on their clothes and on the carpets.

From these desperate beginnings, writer Diablo Cody and her regular director partner Jason Reitman have fashioned a film with a spiky charm and unexpected tenderness. It helps that Cody provides her characters (especially Marlo) with some memorably barbed and sarcastic one-liners. When Marlo is told yet again by patronising teachers that her troublesome son Jonah is an “out of the box” and very “quirky” boy, she finally snaps. “Do I have a kid or a fucking ukulele,” she yells as the school principal.

In Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews flies into the Banks’ home by umbrella. Here, Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives in more conventional fashion. After the birth of the new baby, Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny. Marlo and her husband are very suspicious of such an idea but eventually give in. Tully is young, attractive, kind, witty and hard-working. She cleans the house and bakes cupcakes for Marlo’s other kids to take to school. She ensures that the mum gets some sleep and even puts some pep back in the couple’s sex life.

Charlize Theron has always been a method-style performer on screen. Whether playing a butch serial killer (her Oscar-winning turn as Aileen Wuornos in Monster), a gun-toting warrior (as in Mad Max: Fury Road) or a svelte and lethal spy (as in last year’s Atomic Blonde), she hurls herself into her roles, holding absolutely nothing back. Here, she put on a reported 50 pounds in weight to play the mother whose “body looks like a relief map for a war-torn country”. It’s a performance in which bodily functions are to the fore. We see her peeing and vomiting. We see the moment when her waters break. We see her enduring agonies as she breastfeeds. Motherhood, as portrayed here, is a very gruelling tour of duty. In its full-blooded commitment, Theron’s turn matches that of Robert De Niro as the self-destructive boxer in Raging Bull.

Reitman shoots Theron in an unflattering light and always seems to capture her in queasy close-up at the most embarrassing moments. At one stage, we see her out jogging, trying to recapture her fitness. A passer-by is startled by the damp patches on her shirt around her breasts. Marlo explains that these are milk stains.

Tully - Trailer 2

Tully, by contrast, is strangely glamorous. There is something very mysterious about her – a carefree quality that reminds the mother of her younger self, when she was an English literature student living a bohemian life, before being ground down by family life. “I’m not used to people doing things for me,” she says with obvious self-pity when her new night-time helper begins to make her existence so much more comfortable. Tully isn’t just the nanny. She soon becomes Marlo’s friend and co-conspirator. They even go on a reckless, Thelma and Louise-style jaunt into Brooklyn together.

Cody’s screenplay can be interpreted in very different ways. You can see the film as an uplifting story about a wife and mother overcoming the drudgery of domesticity and finding new meaning in her life. The story, though, also has a darker underside. It deals with desperation and delusion. We’re not quite sure whether Tully is a tale of redemption or breakdown. Whatever the case, this is both a witty and a very poignant film about a subject – the stresses and joys of modern motherhood – that Hollywood has rarely gone so near before.

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