“Tully,” a tragedy that thinks it’s a heartfelt comedy, stars Charlize Theron as a struggling mother. So let’s play along with this fantasy (for a bit). When you first meet her character, Marlo, she’s executing the familiar balancing act and juggling a pair of kids — with another one on the way — a husband and a two-story house that looks like it would take hours and hours to vacuum. The golden light that settles on her like a celestial mantle suggests that Marlo’s life is heavenly at least in moments, even if her clenched expression and haunted eyes read more like distress signals.
Marlo is doing the contemporary supermom thing and, refreshingly, she isn’t doing it with 1950s clichéd desperate smiles. Directed by Jason Reitman from a script by Diablo Cody (this is their third movie together), “Tully” admits that this figure is a noxious delusion, one that isn’t suitable for real women. Nevertheless they’re made to feel guilty for not doing it all or scolded for trying to live up to impossible standards. And soon enough the golden nimbus surrounding Marlo vanishes, swept away by the reality of hustling two children off to school while waiting for her water to break. (Lia Frankland plays the 8-year-old Sarah; Asher Miles Fallica plays the younger, ambiguously troubled Jonah.)
Mr. Reitman, as he does, goes for nice and easy, and everything in “Tully” flows when it doesn’t rush, picking up characters like Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), and her conspicuously wealthier brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). The casting of Mr. Livingston and Mr. Duplass — who look more like brothers than Mr. Duplass and his actual brother, Jay Duplass — plays like a joke without a punch line. All it really suggests is that Marlo, in marrying a less successful version of her brother, has some provocative psychosexual issues that the movie can’t be bothered with, mostly because it’s one of those character-driven stories that reduce personalities to a set of readily defined traits and quirks.
To wit: Marlo is a quick draw when it comes to deadpan looks and sharp quips, but also, and of course, loving and exceptionally competent. Drew is a bland hard worker who plays video games in bed at night when Marlo crawls under the covers, a pattern that continues after she delivers their third child. Some might smack Drew’s joystick out of his hands and the rest of his sorry self out of bed — Ms. Theron is such a naturally strong presence that it’s hard to believe Marlo would put up with his nonsense. But that would get in the way of the story’s conceit and antediluvian take on gender roles.
And so it goes: Marlo cares for the kids while Drew works and plays, occasionally pausing to deliver one of those slightly surprised nice-guy looks that the likable Mr. Livingston has a near patent on: eyebrows gently perturbed, face drained of readable emotion, voice slightly rising as if in innocent protest. Drew and Marlo’s division of labor would be fine if it were equitable. But fairness wouldn’t jibe with the story’s plans for Marlo, much less enlightenment. Her burden is treated as grist for comedy, notably in the repeated images — fluttering like a flip book — of her enduring a lonely maternal crucible as she feeds and diapers the newborn again and again.
Marlo is rescued by Tully (Mackenzie Davis from the late, great AMC series “Halt and Catch Fire”), a night nurse whose job is to take over for exhausted mothers, allowing them much-needed sleep. Ms. Davis is a sparky, charismatic performer, and, much like her character, she whooshes into the story, infusing it with energy and scattering good vibes like a punk Tinker Bell. Under her caretaker’s attentive, adamant watch, Marlo again starts to smile, re-entering the world of the living. She brightens and so does “Tully,” which morphs into a female-friendship movie, complete with a nostalgic girls-wanna-have fun playlist calculated for maximum audience head-bobbing.
Ms. Theron and Ms. Davis make a pleasurable, watchable pair — Ms. Davis is obviously happy to be the moon to Ms. Theron’s sun — but “Tully” isn’t really interested in the sustaining joys of female bonding. It has a message to deliver, which is as sincere and decent as it is obvious: Mothers need help, sometimes serious help. Which is why it’s strange that as Marlo very visibly sinks into postpartum depression — you can see Ms. Theron pulling Marlo deeper and deeper inside — the movie pretends that her burden is somehow too hidden for anyone to notice. Much like her useless husband, it isolates Marlo, and once again it is a woman who’s the problem that needs solving.
Rated R for some adult language and play dates. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.
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