Motherhood is so often sanctimoniously depicted in the movies that the acerbity of “Tully,” directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, is initially off-putting. Charlize Theron plays Marlo, in her ninth month of pregnancy, who has a precocious 8-year-old daughter (Lia Frankland), a special-needs son (Asher Miles Fallica), and a well-meaning husband (Ron Livingston) whose default in life is playing video games. In her 40s, Marlo is not exactly looking forward to another baby. For her, the birth represents something less than a “blessed event.” She has pre-partum depression.
Sensing what is to come, her moneyed brother (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny, a suggestion Marlo at first soundly rejects. Who wants a stranger coming into their home at night? But once the baby is born, Reitman flashes a grueling montage of baby yowling and diaper changings and all-nighters, and Marlo decides to give the night nanny idea a go. Soon enough, the 20-something Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives on her doorstep and, like Mary Poppins, proceeds to set things aright. She tells Marlo, “I’m here to take care of you.”
Reitman and Cody worked together previously on “Juno” and “Young Adult” (the latter with Theron), and they share a cynical-sentimental streak. In “Tully,” the cynicism about the supposed undiluted joys of motherhood rings true, or at least truer than in movies that don’t admit such a station in life can be less than paradise. The movie is very acute about the ways in which Marlo, during pregnancy and after, is often subtly or not so subtly judged by outsiders. (A scene in a coffee shop in which the pregnant Marlo orders a decaf coffee even after a patron sniffily informs her that decaf has traces of caffeine in it is typically telling.)
The movie is also very sharp about the ways in which Marlo’s senses explode when she realizes she no longer has to be fully responsible for her baby. She dreams of mermaids. (Well, maybe that part I could have done without.) She credits Tully with giving her back her life. “It’s like I can see colors again,” she tells her.
We know enough about Marlo to get a fix on her predicament (though I could have done with more). A hippie hell-raiser in her 20s, she settled into uneasy domesticity in suburban New York but still feels as if she’s missed out on being the person she might have been.
But what do we know about Tully? She arrives as a kind of deus ex machina, and she appears to know everything. (Marlo says of her, “She’s like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth-graders.”) Even without a weird Act 3 plot twist, Tully’s character is problematic. As well-played as she is by Davis, there’s a wish-fulfillment aspect to the role that makes it easy for us to buy into the film’s notion that all Marlo needed was to love herself more and all would turn out for the best. A privileged sanctimony clings to this movie that is not fully recognized by its filmmakers: After all, not every distraught new mother can afford a self-help guru.
Theron, who gained weight for the role, helps redeem the film’s fuzzier aspects. She gives Cody’s smartest lines the snap they deserve, but she also conveys a bone-deep world-weariness that demonstrates just how dire is Marlo’s desire for regeneration. And she doesn’t go all gooey on us when things brighten. She may be able to see colors again, but she can also register the shadows. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.)