Tully review: grounded and sympathetic, let down by its third act

First things first, this review is not going to describe Charlize Theron as “brave” because she gained some weight for a role. Theron, a glamorous movie star, plays Marlo, mother of a newborn here, and you know what? That’s ok. Movie stars can be mums, too – in fact, Theron already is. What would have been brave, though, is if screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman had the confidence to tell their story of an everyday woman finding it tough to juggle the demands of being a mother and wife without resorting to cheap narrative tricks – the kind that leave one exiting the cinema feeling let down by Tully’s third act.

Before the film gets to that point, though, it’s a grounded, sympathetic and often grimly comic portrayal of motherhood. As Marlo juggles her two school-age kids with a first pending, then present, child number three, Tully conveys the pressure on body, mind and soul brought to bear by never-ending stress and responsibilities. Easily dismissed as “normal” even as they represent enormous challenges to mums everywhere, they’re written on Theron’s face, sculpted in her posture, and carved into her mood.

She’s a mother doing it tough as Cody herself would recognise, if not Marlo’s husband Drew. Ron Livingston impresses as the latter – well-meaning, loving, caring and attentive, but like many men not grasping the emotional labour of his spouse. Like Theron, it’s a very real performance, and as multiple emotions struggle to be expressed on his face towards the film’s conclusion, his mug defies you to not be moved.

Less relatable is the Tully of the title, a manic pixie night nurse played by Mackenzie Davis. Like all young, vibrant, kooky characters of this kind she’s there as much to shake Marlo’s character up for the screenwriter as to provide practical babyminding assistance. Cody’s got a reason for that tired trope that makes sense though – though it’s interwoven with the aforementioned third act disappointment.

Prior to that, there’s some good stuff going on, and Cody generally restrains herself from her tendency in prior films to show off with dialogue and references (I’m OK with her slipping in a little Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains just ’cause I like it – but you couldn’t resist, could you, Cody?). On balance, it’s a reasonable watch – one that’s cannily timed with Mother’s Day around the corner.

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