What Charlize Theron does in “Tully” is remarkable, and it shouldn’t be. The actress plays a mom — an exhausted, stressed-out, bleary-eyed, very capable, slightly panicky, wholly average mom, pushing the boulder uphill every day (and most of the night) without ever being noticed. There’s a superficial “daring” to the casting and performance — an Oscar-winning glamour queen and action hero gains weight and looks like hell for a role — that almost immediately fades into the background, because Theron never once condescends to the woman she’s playing. From the first frame, we feel the character’s ordinary pain.
Marlo (Theron) lives in the Jersey suburbs, is married to a nice, nebbishy office worker named Drew (Ron Livingston), and has two kids and one on the way when “Tully” opens. The daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), is sober-faced and weighed down with the duties of being the eldest. The son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), is a handful. Disruptive, sweet, undiagnosed (everyone calls him “quirky,” as though he were a pint-size Wes Anderson), he sets the movie’s teeth on edge, and director Jason Reitman keeps the early editing jagged and nerve-rattling. Marlo’s already overwhelmed, and the arrival of a new baby threatens to push her over the cliff.
Our movies just don’t go here — under the hood of motherhood to see what’s about to break down — and the best scenes in “Tully” observe the stomach-clenching whirlwind of Marlo’s daily life and, by observing, force us to see. The screenwriter is Diablo Cody, who has worked with Reitman before on “Juno” (2007), the movie that made her name, and “Young Adult” (2011), which also starred Theron and which may be the best thing both Cody and Reitman have done.
Reitman, for his part, is coming off a bad patch (2014’s preachy “Men, Women & Children”; 2013’s ridiculous “Labor Day”) that put his early triumphs (including 2005’s “Thank You for Smoking” and 2009’s “Up in the Air”) in uncomfortable perspective. “Tully” marks a comeback — for most of its running time. Maybe Reitman, Cody, and Theron simply respond to each other, or to the challenge of creating sharp comic dramas about messy, realistic women.
So Marlo is quietly falling apart despite every indication that she’s holding it together, and only Tully turns up to save the day. Who’s Tully? The young “night nanny” her annoyingly successful brother (Mark Duplass) has hired to give his sister a break, a bit of yuppie pampering the less-wealthy Marlo resents and feels a little icky about. Until she doesn’t.
As played by Mackenzie Davis (AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire”), Tully’s a romantic-comedy free spirit remade for a fable on sisterhood. A Manic Pixy Dream Doula. She arrives for the late-night feeding, tucks the bone-tired Marlo into bed, cleans the house, and leaves home-made cupcakes in her wake. She’s Mary Poppins reinstalled into the body of a tattooed hipster, telling Marlo that “I’m here to take care of you. You pretty much are the baby.” And after a while, Marlo doesn’t just need Tully, she wants to be Tully — or the Marlo that once looked like Tully. And Tully seems to want that, too. Which is when things get interestingly weird.
Screenwriter Cody has children of her own, and “Tully” has details that come from the trenches — that remind a viewer it is, for instance, possible to fall asleep with a breast-pump buzzing away. The movie observes how a husband can be simultaneously loving and in denial, and it’s very smart about the micro-aggressions of sibling rivalry. And yet. . . “Tully” doesn’t quite stick its landing. To be precise, the landing turns it into a completely different movie, one its makers don’t have the time and maybe the interest to explore.
That sounds like I’m being coy when I’m just protecting the ace the film keeps up its sleeve. We’ve already felt a hesitancy in the hints of Marlo’s pre-married life in downtown Manhattan, with a woman who seems to have been something between best friend and lover. It’s a note of confusion the film serves up as ambiguity and then, in a tidy resolution that solves nothing, turns into a cop-out.
Cody’s dialogue retains its smart, brittle edge while losing much of its snark, and Theron does minor miracles in the lead, her eyes registering Marlo’s pride, insecurity, desperation, and rage, all under the smiling surface of the capable mom next to you at the supermarket. Theron is so good that when “Tully” climaxes by revealing whole new depths to her character, an audience can’t help but feel cheated. Maybe the rosy, complacent final scenes can fool the filmmakers, but not us, and certainly, one senses, not Theron. The movie’s over, but it feels like the star’s just getting started.
Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. Starring Charlize Theron, Ron Livingston, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass. At Kendall Square. 96 minutes. R (language, some sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.