Tully: It’s Not a Wonderful Life
Tully, the new film starring Charlize Theron, is like a very good episode of The Twilight Zone. It sets up a premise and then surprises the viewer with a twist. In this case the surprise offers insight into the nature of parenthood and adulthood in 2018, with a particularly dispiriting view of modern men.
In Tully, Theron plays Marlo, a suburban woman in New Jersey. Marlo is in her early forties and she is overwhelmed. She has two children: Sarah (Lia Frankland), who is studious and quiet, and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), a boy with emotional issues. There’s also a third baby on the way. Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) spends most of his time either at work or playing video games.
Marlo is suffering from postpartum depression—or maybe it’s pre-partum, as she is in her ninth month with the new baby. Between her PTSD explosions of profanity, the sunken eyes, and the conflicts with the school principal, Marlo seems ready to explode. In her dreams she is drowning, but compared to the trauma of her life, the dreams seem peaceful, like gentle suicide. Then the third baby arrives, and suddenly help appears. Warning: Tully contains a twist that has led to some debate, and I’m going to reveal that twist in this review. It’s impossible to evaluate the tone of this film without it.
Sensing that she is struggling, her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny. Marlo rejects the offer until the new baby is born. At the doorstop appears a twentysomething named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) saying, “I’m here to take care of you.” Marlo’s life begins to improve. She gets more sleep, the house is cleaner, and Jonah begins adjusting to a new school for kids with special needs. “I thought you were taking care of the baby,” Marlo says. “Right now, you pretty much are the baby,” Tully replies. Tully is beautiful and empathetic, and has a toned, athletic figure that Marlo envies.
But something is off. The instant intimacy between Marlo and Tully seems a bit too pat, as if Tully director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody had not fleshed out these characters. Tully raids the refrigerator when she’s hungry, takes hot tubs, and asks Marlo frank questions about her sexual relationship with her husband. In the most bizarre scene, Marlo reveals that Drew once had a fantasy about having sex with a diner waitress, leading Tully to squeeze herself into a waitress costume and quietly seduce him. (The scene is thankfully not graphic.) Oddly, when Tully had first come to the house, Drew had not even greeted her at the front door.
As it turns out—I’m about to reveal the big spoiler, so stop reading if you plan on seeing the film—Tully is not real. She is the manifestation of Marlo in her twenties. In a desperate act of wish- projection or perhaps a postpartum phantasmagoria, Marlo has conjured a version of her young, sexy, and carefree self. She has come to her own aid. What had seemed like lapses on the part of the filmmakers suddenly make sense. So does the dramatic plot twist that follows, having to do with Tully’s beneficence being mixed with the recklessness of youth. (I needn’t spoil everything for prospective viewers; let’s just say that the plot twist allows them to be let in on the movie’s “trick.”)
Tully is primarily a drama about the slow descent into postpartum depression, how the victim struggles mightily to tread water even as she feels the world slipping away. Yet it is also an indictment of the modern man-child, and a lament for the death of adult culture. Tully’s husband Drew spends every night under a set of headphones playing a stupid video game, and her brother Craig has refurbished his basement to resemble an elaborate tiki bar. In a previous age, these men would have had book-lined studies and maybe known a symphony or two and how to dance the waltz. Drew and Craig are men who, despite being fathers, have never really grown up.
An instructive comparison could be made between Tully and It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra classic. In both, the protagonists feel so trapped by their home environment that they seek self-destruction as an escape. The outsiders who intervene and steer things right come in different forms in the two films, though. In Tully, Marlo is saved and Drew brought to his senses by a female emergency-room doctor (Elfina Luk) who bluntly announces that Marlo is suffering from exhaustion and depression. It is medical science that can save Marlo.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, of course, the messenger is heaven-sent. Clarence, an angel wonderfully played by Henry Travers, pulls Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey back from the brink. He does so by revealing to George that he is essential to the community of Bedford Falls, and that friends, community, and family are the source of worth and meaning. In 1946 America, George was living in a world of adult entertainment, conversation, and social life. It’s why the swing dance depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life is so magical, fun and life-giving, and in Tully, the dank, cacophonous hipster Brooklyn bar is hell itself.
Lacking any similar community to pull her out of her spiral, Marlo has to rely on medicine. Tully is, as New Yorker critic Anthony Lane noted, “the product of a time and a place in which parenting has become both a gerund and a secular faith, complete with devotees, dietary laws, doctrinal disputes, and a range of denominations,” a world where the voice of hope comes from a doctor, a secular angel. The men, oblivious to it all, decorate their tiki bars and play their video games.