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‘Tully’ Review: Charlize Theron Delivers in the Mother of All Bruising Comedies

3 stars (out of 4)

 It’s amazing how a tiny twist can make a huge difference. Take Tully, an ingenious take on domesticity disguised as a quirky mid-life crisis comedy. You’ve seen the poster art, right? It’s a close-up of star Charlize Theron with kiddie stickers of hearts and rainbows planted all over her porcelain-skinned face. With screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the team behind Juno and Young Adult, at the helm, you’d be forgiven for assuming the movie was one just droll bitch session about the passage of time. Tully has much more to offer. You just gotta see it for yourself.

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charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Jason Reitman's TULLY
Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Jason Reitman’s TULLY Focus Features

Theron is fantastic as Marlo, a former Brooklyn hipster who’s now a full-on, put-upon working suburban mom. She has her hands full with two kids, and she’s days away from popping out a third. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is there more in body than in spirit, shirking the big responsibilities that come with being an impending dad of three. While he goes to work and then retreats to the bedroom to play video games, she’s being stretched like putty. Her emotionally needy son needs extra attention, she needs to hire a private aid for him that she can’t afford, dinner is frozen pizza. All she wants is a decaf coffee but a judgmental stranger in the shop points out even decaf has “trace amounts” of caffeine, which can be harmful for unborn babies. Marlo orders it anyway. Then she has a baby girl. “It’s such a blessing,” she says in a monotone voice.

She’s on the verge of a biblical meltdown in the parking lot of her kids’ school when she pulls out a yellow business card of her purse and takes up her brother’s offer to hire a night nurse. She doesn’t like the idea of a stranger taking care of her baby and really doesn’t want her smug, wealthy sibling (Mark Duplass) to lord it over her, but, what the hell, desperate times. Her name is Tully (Mackenzie DavisBlade Runner 2049). She’s a 20-something free spirit that wears a bare midriff on her first night of work. Marlo reports to her husband that she’s “weird.” Yet she turns out to be a nurturing, knowing gift from the Mary Poppins gods. Or goddesses.  

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Marlo wakes up the first morning and, for the first time in eons, appears semi-well-rested. Tully straightened up the house too, bless her. The two soon form a nocturnal bond that goes above and beyond the call of duty. They confide secrets over sangrias. Marlo dishes on her sex life and wasted opportunities. Tully bakes Marlo’s son Despicable Me cupcakes so he can do right by his classmates. The relationship starts to become disgustingly, ridiculously precious, as Tully shows Marlo the power of rosy blush on her cheeks. Only then do we take a detour into the deeply unconventional.   

There’s something vaguely condescending about complimenting a gorgeous movie star for giving a sneering, vanity-free performance. But between Young Adult and now Tully, I’m convinced Theron was destined to do bruising comedy. No amount of ass she that kicks in Fate of the Furious, Atomic Blonde or even Mad Max: Fury Road can match the withering look she gives Livingston every time she collapses into bed and he’s lost in his video game. A tirade against a school official is blistering in its beauty. Her Marlo is exhausted and frustrated and harried in the most authentic, anti-Hollywood way possible.

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A movie like Juno has always grated on me because I can’t buy that teen girl who just found out she was pregnant would make sardonic quips about The Bone Collector and her hamburger phone. But Cody, like her fictional main character, has grown up. She’s taking narrative risks and not just relying on detached dialogue to stay atop the cool-o-meter. The result is a moving, highly effectively portrait of what truly happens when an urbanite adults to the extreme. The medicine goes doesn’t always go down easily. But in this case, an unflinching story trumps a spoonful of sugar.     

Tully opens in theaters on Friday, May 4

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