Saturday, 19 May 2018

Movie Review: Tully (2018)

The plot: Mother-of-two Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) are expecting their third child soon. However, the stress of taking care of the two they already have has taken its toll on Marlo. Her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests that she hire a night nanny to help around the house, and soon, Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives at Marlo’s front door offering to help her. As the two connect, it seems that Marlo is finally getting the support she needed and things are looking up… but how long will it last?

Theron’s reputation for incredibly strong and sharp portrayals of equally strong and sharp female characters holds extremely firm here, as she doesn’t so much give a performance as much as she becomes modern motherhood incarnate. From the perpetually tiredness to the very warm presence she brings to the scenes involving her children, right down to the “I’m extremely tired, but not tired enough to stop myself from slapping you in the face” look she gives Drew when he asks why the children are using screens at the dinner table. It all fits and it makes the character feel as real as anything, a major boon for this type of story. Livingston as Drew, aside from being another iteration of the increasingly-popular ‘gamer dad’ archetype (a win, far as I’m concerned), fulfills what the role requires of him, and considering the story is objectively all about Marlo and Tully, it isn’t that much. Nothing wrong with the performance; it’s just that he’s the supporting cast in the strictest sense.

Davis as Tully definitely feels the brain-child of the directing/writing duo who gave us Juno, as she is definitely cut from the same hipster cloth (one of her first lines of dialogue is “Who cares if it’s popular? It’s still a really pretty name.”). As good as her chemistry with Theron is, and it is consistently fantastic, her Manic Pixie Dream Girls tendencies can feel a bit off-centre for a film that is this grounded in reality. Mark ‘Remember when mumblecore was still a thing?’ Duplass as Marlo’s brother gets some good beats in, and his relationship with Drew actually makes for one of the subtler touches in how their dynamic is sculpted. Asher Miles Fallica and Lia Frankland both keep with the film’s sense of realism as Marlo and Drew's children, in that they both act like real kids and not just what grown-ups wish real kids were like, and as much as I would rather refrain from armchair diagnosis… something about Jonah constantly being referred to as “quirky” makes me think that this film wanted to use the A word but ultimately didn’t.

Which, honestly, might’ve been a bit too much because that would’ve officially made this film about as accurate to my own home life as it is possible to get. I know that I’m about as far from a biological mother as it is possible to get, but considering I still live with my own mother and my three very young and very attention-needing siblings, I have enough of a rough idea to go on as far as this film’s efficacy. And effective it most certainly is, as the depictions of Marlo’s ‘normal’ live at home are about as purposely unglamorous as possible. Rather than being another bit of wish fulfillment for the maternal audience, this feels like it’s trying to tap into the very real and very maddening reality of the modern mother. The morning hassles just trying to get the kids dressed and ready for school, the frequent late-night excursions to calm down the new baby, not to mention the quieter moments of Marlo just sitting in front of the TV, enjoying the rarity of solitude. This is why I pointed out the gamer dad trope earlier; because those moments, whether it’s Drew playing video games or Marlo watching Gigolos, show the kind of need for some alone time that should ring very familiar for anyone who regularly interacts with children. Even in the slightly-weirder moments, like when Marlo needs to express milk in a grungy nightclub bathroom (the reasons for which are far less skeevy than I'm probably making them out to be), feel like they’re connected to the facts of the lifestyle. It’s not pandering but understanding.

From that bedrock of a realistic depiction of her home life, the film also delves into the character psychology of Marlo and how much the introduction of Tully ends up changing her worldview. As beautiful and natural AF the act of raising children is… let’s be honest: It’s also a bit of a nightmare. Along with all the day-long noise and need to juggle time between all of the children, there’s also the common fear that motherhood is the point where a person’s life ends. Or, more specifically, where a person’s life as an individual ends. From that point on, everything has to be about the children: Their sleep, their diet, their learning, their time on the toilet. Being able to devote one’s life to caring for another is something that takes a lot of strength, but in the shuffle, it can be easy to forget that there has to be time for one’s self. Beyond the gaming and the watching of trash TV, there has to be time taken out to connect with one’s self and one’s own desires. The latter is something that usually ends up being discarded once the children show up, but with how run-down Marlo is during the first act, you start to wonder if that should be the case. Enter Tully, who ends up reinvigorating that sense in her and renewing her enjoyment of life. Even a life that involves doing the exact same thing every day like clockwork, a trait that Tully herself admits is “incredible” because it is. Mothers have a very hard, overtime-without-extra-pay job, and the fact that they are able to do it more times than not is nothing short of “incredible”.

However, as funny, warm and genuinely touching this film is, there is a pretty major snag in the workings: The ending. *SPOILERS* warning right here, and I so wish I didn’t have to go into this but… this is one of those endings that ends up souring a lot of the preceding film out of sheer proximity. So, it turns that Tully herself isn’t actually real; she is a figment of Marlo’s imagination, an alternate personality based off of how Marlo was when she was younger. Yep, they went for a Fight Club ending for this grounded maternal drama. Knowing what happened last time we checked in with writer Diablo Cody, I should’ve been expecting this kind of trite storytelling to show up somewhere. With that said, though, I’m honestly rather torn on this resolution.

On one hand, it actually makes sense. It plays into the same idea of female self-empowerment and the mantra of “what you truly needed was inside of you all along” that films like I Feel Pretty banked on, and the use of mermaid imagery throughout the film definitely ties into the notion of the almost-mystical feminine being that doesn’t actually exist. But on the other hand, this is the type of ending that is rarely if ever done well nowadays; I brought up Fight Club because that nearly-20-year-old film is the last time I remember it being done well. It’s set up well enough, at least making the reveal seem like it had some amount of planning beforehand and it wasn’t just a quick finish, but it still feels like one. Not only is the reveal itself a bit of an eye-roll, it’s also jarringly quick to go from that revelation right into the ending. No time to let it sink in, or even to question how long Marlo knew about this (if she did at all); just wham, bam, thank you Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s really confounding that they made the MPDG, the character that rationally shouldn’t exist in a film like this, not actually exist… and yet, it still doesn’t work. I’m harping on about this a bit, but that’s how off this ending is: It genuinely sours a fair bit of the film around it, the kind of unfortunate effect that happens with films that are mostly really good but fail to stick the landing.

All in all, this is an extremely good film at odds with its extremely weak ending. The acting is great, with Charlize Theron basically personifying motherhood in how she hits every single beat perfectly, Jason Reitman’s direction is solid and lets us drink in the very humdrum trappings of Marlo’s home (bonus points to composer Rob Simonsen and editor Stefan Grube for their terrific montage work here), and the writing hits sweet, funny, depressing and poignant in all the right doses, giving what feels like an authentic look into what motherhood means in the age of the iPad. It is genuinely weird how much I can relate to this film just from seeing my own mother’s actions around the house. But even with all that good, the ending here is not only very played-out by this point in cinematic history but it sticks out like a sore thumb against the rest of the film in how fantastical it comes across. It has its groundings within the story, and there’s definitely some subtext to wring out of it, but as strict narrative, I couldn’t vibe with it and it ended up spoiling some of the experience for me. I still highly recommend this, but if you walk out of the cinema with a slightly let-down mood, that ending might be why.

It ranks higher than Mary Magdalene, as there is nary a dull moment to be found here. Tully may take a hard left near the end, but the bulk of it is made up of consistently poignant snapshots of the modern mother; it’s worth its salt. But considering that same sticking point, it still falls short of The Post, which not only doesn’t have as much of a bummer ending but it actually got better as it went along. That built up to a great head of steam, whereas this just lets out a very annoying whistle once it’s done.

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