When a certain magical nanny blew in with the help of the east wind and dropped by a certain home in London, she wasn’t there so much to look after Jane and Michael, she was saving Mr. Banks. In the comedy/drama Tully from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the title character is not altogether unlike her Edwardian counterpart. She’s Mary Poppins on the night shift. She may be hired to look after the family newborn but it’s mom who’s really being saved.
During the opening moments as she comes down the stairs, before you see her face, you see her condition. Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have her third child, and it can’t come a moment too soon. Everyone around her has an opinion about pregnancy and feel the need to tell her, even those she doesn’t know. When at a coffee shop ordering a de-caf, a customer steps in and tells mom there are still traces of caffeine in the coffee. Marlo nods in acknowledge, ignores the woman, and drinks her drink. “I feel like an abandoned trash barge,” Marlo states, referring to the infamous 1987 boat load of garbage floating up and down the east coast that no one wanted.
Then she has the child, and it doesn’t get better. Continuous disturbed sleep, endless diaper changes in the middle of the night, and still a home to run, mouths to feed, and a husband to keep happy. She’s exhausted. Plus, unlike those celebrity mothers who talk of doing exercises and crunches in the first week, then proudly show off a lean, shapely physique in the second, Marlo has yet to lose an ounce. “My body looks like a relief map for a worn-torn country,” she states.
Then there’s the husband. When Drew (Ron Livingston) comes home from a busy day at work, he needs a good meal and some winding-down time in front of the TV playing video games. After all, there’s only so much he can do, particularly if he’s already helped the kids with their homework. “Frozen pizza,” he states in a voice suggesting it’s been on the menu every other evening. “Awesome.”
But Marlo’s brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) has a suggestion. A night-nanny. Someone who can relieve the demands of being an over-stressed mother by coming to the house in the evening and looking after the child while the mother gets some sleep. “They’re like ninjas,” Craig explains. “They sneak in and out at night. You barely know they’re there.” Marlo doesn’t warm to the idea. But one night, while she’s watching TV, there’s a knock at the door. A young woman in her mid-twenties stands there. “Hi,” she says with a warm, friendly smile, “I’m Tully.”
Tully does exactly as promised; she allows mom to sleep while the baby is cared for. And in a strange, almost mystical way, she affects a few other unexpected changes. “Why is the house so clean?” asks Marlo’s daughter at the breakfast table after Tully’s first night.
As the unexpected night nanny, Mackenzie Davis plays Tully with all the hug-warming charm of your favorite flower child, the kind that finds her own spoonful of sugar in ordinary, everyday things, and has fun dealing with them. She not only cares and calms a crying child in the middle of the night, she cleans house, allows mom to regain that seeping energy, and imparts the occasional words of wisdom and everyday trivia that helps the conversation flow. “You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders,” Marlo tells her.
But there’s a catch. What we think is mom suffering from Postpartum Depression might actually be the rarer Postpartum Psychosis. Might be. It differs from depression. Mothers experience times of sudden activity, even paranoia. There are clues that surface in the final twenty minutes that support the idea of a psychosis. At one point, after treating themselves to a drunken night on the town, revisiting one of Marlo’s youthful playgrounds, Tully suddenly announces out of the blue that her time is done and she’ll have to leave, though no reason is given. Was the east wind about to change?
By journey’s end, things never quite satisfy, particular when Tully suggests to Marlo a teasing, role-playing means of injecting new vitality into her non-existent sex life. It’s an amusing scene in a smart script as the husband stirs from his slumber to face both his wife and Tully smiling down on him, but ultimately it doesn’t work. And even though the next morning at the breakfast table, once Tully’s night shift is done, the husband asks Marlo, “Do we need to talk about last night?’ indicating the incident, or something, really happened, it still feels uncomfortably wrong.
But whatever concerns experienced with the film and what the final act is suggesting, there’s no problem with Theron. It’s hard to recall any other film revolving around the theme of pregnancy where the actor playing mom actually appears pregnant. It’s not just the obvious bulge, or the “hug buffer” as Marlo calls it, but the whole body. It’s reported that Theron packed an extra 50 pounds for the role, an undesirable though effective feat that works not only for those early scenes when carrying the child, but the overall look of baby weight retained once the child is born. In the way that Theron closed the door on both her natural good looks and movie-star glamour in 2004’s Monster, she does something similar here. And like her putting on the pounds as Aileen Wuornos, playing Marlo isn’t a simple case of letting the surface image do the work; the exhaustion Theron’s Marlo experiences feels all too authentic; you see the energy draining from her being.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)