Early in her screenwriting career, Diablo Cody was frequently labeled “quirky,” probably on account of the way she’d peppered her breakout hit Juno with phrases like “honest to blog” and “I’ve taken like three pregnancy tests, and I’m forshizz up the spout.”
With such a recognizable “shtick,” it can be easy to get pigeonholed. The upside is that Cody is a screenwriter whose name people know, a group you could probably count on one hand. Her stamp is all over her new movie, Tully (once again directed by Jason Reitman, who we recently spoke to about the film), but it no longer feels like shtick. The cleverness is still there but no longer so cutesy, the wit both dialed back and dialed in. These days it just feels like confident storytelling. (It’s also worth pointing out that Juno was written partly in obnoxious teenspeak because its characters were obnoxious teens).
11 years later, “quirky” is a word used to describe Cody’s protagonist’s son, and not because he uses cool web-slang. More because he cries over loud toilets and has a nervous breakdown when his mom has to drop him off in a different parking lot. Finally pushed to the edge by his private school’s principal, who wants her to pay for a full-time minder in addition to private school, Charlize Theron’s Marlo screams, “‘Quirky?’ What the f*ck does that even mean? Is my son retarded?”
Is that Cody being self-referential? Probably not, but it’s fun to think about.
Marlo has reached her breaking point. She has two kids, with a third unplanned one on the way. Her husband, played by Ron Livingston, works too hard at a job no one understands (“I audit environments for efficiency in a proto-corporate space” he says, or some such). Which he does in order to afford their kids’ private school, and then he “comes home, puts on his headphones, kills zombies for an hour and then passes out,” as Marlo describes it. “Overworked gamer dad,” an archetype for a new generation. It suits Livingston too, looking like the same boyish dad-man he was almost 20 years ago in Office Space.
A “mom at the brink” narrative is tough to pull off. It risks being both too trivial — who wants to watch a movie about the travails of the well-off and their anxiety over not being as rich as their filthy rich friends (like Marlo’s brother, who drives a Mercedes and employs a full-time nanny)? And yet also too real — aging, existential dread, and ennui are what most of us are trying to avoid when we seek out entertainment.
But Cody and Jason Reitman, teaming up for the third time after Juno and Young Adult, now seasoned collaborators, have a knack for knowing when to pummel us with harsh reality and when to ease off with gentle humor, pushing us right up to the brink of “too real” along with Marlo and then releasing the tension with a well-placed laugh line. Reitman’s direction has a dream-like quality to it, deeply grounded but deploying a montage just when we need a break from literal reality.
It’s a full 39 minutes before the titular “Tully” shows up, a long time to wait but not too long, a perfect illustration of Tully‘s method of delaying gratification. Narratively, Tully is a little like a drummer playing just behind the beat to make it really swing. Tully is Marlo’s new “night nanny,” a sort of hipster Mary Poppins, played by a perfectly cast Mackenzie Davis. She’s everything Marlo could want in a caregiver, as well as a font of random facts, affirmations, and spooky witticisms, like when she tells Marlo that her baby’s “DNA is still inside you, and your DNA is still inside her. It will be there for months.”
The Tully character is a perfect outlet for Cody’s writing. One of Cody’s most charming attributes is her flair for small wisdoms. There’s some sneaky trenchant life analysis happening throughout Tully, which is what keeps the every day family stuff from feeling mundane or self-indulgent. This quality got overshadowed by the snappity-snap dialogue in Juno, but it was always there — the sneaky sage wisdom delivered with contemporary flair. She disguises aphorisms with wit, so that they rarely come off hokey or preachy. Mackenzie Davis is an ideal form to give these pearls voice — with her waify frame, near-translucent eyes, and luminescent smile, she has that “benevolent space alien” quality. Being a magical wisdom dispenser suits her.
Reitman too possesses a gift for packaging earnestness with an artful balance that evokes the desired emotion without feeling schmaltzy or pandering or manipulative. There’s a scene between Marlo’s son, mid-freakout, and a male teacher who suggests “let’s just be trees for a while.”
The teacher is never identified and the scene is almost irrelevant to the larger story, but it might be the most touching movie moment I’ve seen all year. It’s perfectly done.
Just when you think Tully is turning into an extended infomercial for the concept of a night nanny, things between Tully and the family get a little… strange. But not soap-opera strange. Then the story takes a hard left into magical realism towards the end. At first I was resistant to the twist, thinking the story didn’t need it, and if I described it on paper you’d probably laugh out loud and run from this movie screaming. All I can say is that it doesn’t work at first, but then it does. Something about the combination of Cody, Reitman, and Theron, and just a few lines of well-placed dialogue.
It’s a microcosm of the way the movie works as a whole, pushing you away with issues you don’t really want to watch a movie about — babies, aging, financial troubles, the monotony of monogamy — and then slowly reeling you back in with genuine insight about them. And then without noticing it coming you suddenly feel swollen and warm, either from the lump in your throat or a heart that’s one size too big. The spice just makes it sweeter.