Charlize Theron plays an overwhelmed mom in “Tully.” (Focus Features)

Charlize Theron plays an overwhelmed mom in “Tully.” (Focus Features)

‘Tully’ goes beyond one-liners to make emotional connection

Charlize Theron is superb as a weary pregnant mom whose spirits are lifted by a magical nanny.

Marlo, the main character in “Tully,” fends off small talk with a barrage of acid-dipped put-downs, and dismisses anything sentimental as corny. So you wonder what she would think of this film, which conceals a tender heart within an outer skin of sandpaper.

That’s not a knock; I like “Tully,” a film that makes hipster sincerity look good. Its approach is the modus operandi of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, whose 2007 film “Juno” also took pregnancy as its jumping-off point.

“Juno” coasted along on its cutesy one-liners and a very conventional resolution. Thankfully, “Tully” is thornier and wearier, with an authentic sense of both dejection and hope.

You can see why Marlo’s defense mechanism runs hot. Ignored by a husband who retreats into video games, pregnant with her third child, and struggling mightily to understand a son with special needs, she must also bear the questioning gazes around her. Her second pregnancy brought on postpartum depression. What’s going to happen this time?

Charlize Theron, who previously worked with Cody and Reitman on “Young Adult,” gets every ounce of Marlo’s weariness, and also her quippy attitude. She always looks as though she’s plodding around in an old unbelted bathrobe, even when she’s not.

This is one of those rare times that an actor’s weight gain is truly justified, even more than Theron’s Oscar-winning turn as the beefy killer in “Monster.” This film’s depiction of motherhood is so intensely physical, it makes sense for Marlo to look as though she’s moving around in an unfamiliar wrapper. “What’s wrong with your body?” Marlo’s daughter asks her. She doesn’t answer.

Then things change. Marlo’s financially successful brother (Mark Duplass) and irritatingly chipper wife (Elaine Tan) offer a baby gift: picking up the tab for a “night nanny,” someone who stays overnight for a few weeks and tends to baby so the parents (reliable Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s zoned-out husband) can get a reasonable amount of sleep.

Marlo’s nanny is Tully (the very-nearly-weightless Mackenzie Davis, from “Blade Runner 2049”), a remarkable young woman who waltzes in like some fantastical blend of Mary Poppins and Oprah Winfrey. She doesn’t just look after the new baby, she provides wise counsel and mixes up a mean batch of cupcakes.

Her arrival sparks something dormant in Marlo, and for a while the movie is touched by a Frank Capra-like magic, as though an angel had dropped down to prove that it’s a wonderful life after all. Things don’t work out the way we expect, as the story moves toward an ending that might warrant Marlo’s disapproval but seems to me entirely earned.

There are enough caustic jokes in the film to demonstrate that Cody could write these all day if she wanted to; Marlo has a great moment when she cruises past a beloved former bakery and wistfully sighs, “People ate flour back then.”

This movie doesn’t settle for the one-liners. This time Cody is more invested in building a credible emotional life for Marlo, and Charlize Theron is right there to do the heavy lifting.

“Tully” (3½ stars)

An overwhelmed mom (Charlize Theron) agrees to take on a “night nanny” (Mackenzie Davis) when her third baby arrives — and the nanny brings about a fantastical change in mom’s attitude, at least for a while. This tricky film from “Juno” writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman conceals a tender heart within its sandpaper skin; not everybody will buy its premise, but it earns its ending, propelled by Theron’s strong performance.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Marysville, Meridian, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

Talk to us

More in Life

Vegetable seeds need good drainage in the pots or flats they start in. Too much or too little moisture will both spell disaster. (Getty Images)
If starting plants from seed, don’t forget to read the packet

Follow these tips, plus the guidelines you’ve already read on that package, and you should do just fine.

This Yellow Coach bus made by Arcade is 13 inches long and in great condition. It sold for $600 at Bertoia Auctions in 2020. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
This Arcade yellow double decker bus was made about 1926

In 1921, Arcade Manufacturing Co. decided to make toys that were copies of real vehicles and everyday items.

Common snowdrops are long lived and lend themselves to dividing and naturalizing in the landscape. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Galanthus nivalis aka common snowdrops

Once established, the bulbs are long lived and lend themselves to dividing and naturalizing in the landscape.

"Man and Wife" by Ula Nero
Polish emigrant in Mukilteo shares her colorful artistic vision

Ula Nero is inspired by the Expressionism and Fauvism movements to create funky pet portraits, and much more.

Metal scuptor Wayne Kangas made this fish-shaped weather vane out of 600 leftover stainless steel letters. (Langley Arts Fund)
This artful flying fish tells the weather in Langley

The Langley Arts Fund commissioned “Weather Vane II” by Wayne Kangas for public art in Clyde Alley.

Matt and Jill Wurst opened Audacity Brewing in December 2020 and are now managing to stay open, with the COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, at their brewery on 10th Street on Monday, Jan. 11, 2020 in Snohomish, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
It took some Audacity to open this new Snohomish brewery

The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as Matt and Jill Wurst were getting the business off the ground.

Carissa Hudson pulls a beer at Engel's Pub in Edmonds. At 86 years old, Engel's is one of the oldest bars in Snohomish County.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
When it’s finally safe, these dive bars are worth checking out

David Blend called the watering holes “an essential part of the American experience” in an ode to the haunts.

Enjoy stuffed mini bell peppers on Game Day. (Tulalip Resort Casino)
Make Tulalip chef’s stuffed mini bell peppers for game day

These one-bite treats can be prepped the night before, then popped into the oven for 10 minutes on Super Sunday.

Meatballs go hand-in-hand with spaghetti, but they also can add a wonderful flavor and texture to soup. Pair them with cheese tortellini and youêve got an amped-up version of Italian wedding soup. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)
Not just for spaghetti: Add meatballs to your winter soup

Make an amped-up version of Italian wedding soup with turkey meatballs and cheese tortellini.

Most Read