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.