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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 18, 2018 at 08:05:48 am

I hated this movie. The review, while good, is too kind. By portraying Marlo sympathetically, the film depicts motherhood as hellish. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra presents both aspects of George Bailey. In Tully we see only one.

read full comment
Image of Mark Pulliam
Mark Pulliam
on May 18, 2018 at 08:35:41 am

Should all this play-acting and writing about play-acting not be admired for its pungent relationship to Law or to Liberty; or, perhaps to how Liberty and Law are related in our society (if indeed they remain so as people concentrate on diversions)?

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on May 18, 2018 at 10:17:25 am

When you fail to teach your boy manliness when it is time for him to grow up he will not.

read full comment
Image of Tim Fuller
Tim Fuller
on May 18, 2018 at 14:59:45 pm

There have been those of my generation, many much better than I, who in their manliness, now marked by the memorial stones of failed "policies" and successful combat, will "never grow up to become old." To them, because they did not, and will not, "grow up," , much of the liberty in the world today is due.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on May 18, 2018 at 17:30:28 pm

And a *special* thanks to you and your generation which provided, to those who would listen and observe, all the lessons on manliness, and consequently the at times onerous burdens required of those who would love (and live) Liberty.

BTW: I rather liked Titus Techera's essay on Wolfe and manliness, albeit a manliness derived from less grim lessons and *playing fields.*


read full comment
Image of gabe
on May 19, 2018 at 07:06:31 am

"She has come to her own aid. "

That says it all!


read full comment
Image of steve baker
steve baker
on May 21, 2018 at 15:57:28 pm

Tim Fuller says
"When you fail to teach your boy manliness when it is time for him to grow up he will not."

I see your essential point and agree with that. But a boy deprived of models or moral instruction in manliness will, in fact, "grow up" to be a modern Democrat male, an Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Adam Schiff-type.

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on September 17, 2018 at 11:21:12 am

Interesting perspective. As an old guy, I’d share this. Women have to be resilient because they know that life itself depends on them alone. As for guys, the path to a good life is good character, and the daily commitment to this battle. Fun, in the form of video games, beer, pot, and a hundred other ways to spend money, and energy, benefit others, mostly those you pay for these distractions, but not yourself. The battle to develop good character is the missing piece today. It is a lifetime battle, with plenty of bonding, plenty of excitement, and plenty of satisfaction. Satisfaction is what men are not getting. Self satisfaction. Character development is a very long and hard fight. But when you get old, you see what mattered.

read full comment
Image of Larry Marchant
Larry Marchant

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.