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Universal // R // July 31, 2018
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 8, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

After establishing himself with a series of optimistically bittersweet films that have earned him award recognition, Jason Reitman has moved further into the cynical side of storytelling, tapping into adult themes through some uncomfortable methods. Young Adult marks the beginning of this phase for Reitman, in which he reteamed with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron for a harsh coming-of-age tale of a boozy late-thirties divorcee revisiting her high-school period, building into a caustic glimpse at misguided attempts to reclaim the missed opportunities and desires of her youth. After this darkly humorous turn and the others that followed, recently capped off with a miserably overt takedown of internet addiction with Men, Woman, and Children, Reitman has once again paired up with Cody and Theron for what could've been the mother of all depressing character studies: Tully, a portrait of the psychology of strained, multiple-child motherhood. While melancholy in theme and tempo, Reitman also grasps the drama's positivity in creation of something both incisive and deeply satisfying.

Marlo (Theron) and Drew (yet another endearing character turnout from Ron Livingston) are struggling parents of two, complicated by their son Jonah's development disorder that occupies a lot of their attention … and they have a third, unplanned child on the way any time now. Sensing her strain, Marlo's brother Craig decides to give them a special gift for the birth of their third child: hiring a "night nanny", a professional whose care takes place after hours so that the parents can get rest and attempt to function normally during the daytime. Marlo remains reluctant at first, but after the draining period following the birth, she's not so hesitant when a young, free-spirited woman -- Tully -- shows up on her doorstep and offers to come in for duty. As Tully enmeshes with the family dynamic, a relationship forms between she and Marlo as the exhausted mother surrenders to the aid that she offers. Tully proves she isn't just there for the newborn, though, as she opens the door for Marlo to rediscover some of the personality that she might've lost in her years of parenting.

Inside the warm, dim space of the household, strikingly captured by cinematographer Eric Steelberg to highlight the slow-boiling emotions of domesticity, Reitman whips together a portrayal of a family already strung out by challenges … and how bringing a new child into the mix spreads Marlo too thin. There's honesty and conscientiousness in this depiction of how the mother copes with her special-needs child, from managing his symptoms in everyday scenarios to navigating meetings with his school's administrator, which then transitions to the raw, unglamorous components of new motherhood. Quick cuts throughout the initial parenting process create this beautiful sympathy-earning portrait of chaos and frustration, gracefully toeing the line between exaggerated cinematic drama and the day-to-day perils of living with a newborn. Marlo's demanding conditions form into a comprehensive portrait that gets the maddening and exhausting points across, which inform her flawed but well-intended responses.

Ever since her performance in The Devil's Advocate, Charlize Theron has portrayed a range of layered characters who struggle with progressive internal suffering, with her emotional, guard-lowered gazes doing a lot of the heavy lifting as her body language conveys both resistance and exhaustion. This, of course, works wonders for bringing Marlo to life in Tully, though as she's done in other roles that tap into this sort of strained mentality, Theron also brings a distinctive attitude to the strung-out mother. At first, both Cody's writing and the direction avoid clear-cut explanations of who Marlo once was and how she's transformed into this increasingly cynical, yet loving and devoted persona, though subtle hints arise in conversations with her brother -- a reliably sarcastic yet likable and genuine Mark Duplass -- about her pre-parent attitude and problems encountered in earlier pregnancies. Through both raw physical displays of maternity and honest emotive outbursts, Theron's sincere portrayal invites those watching to experience what she's enduring and decipher what kind of person might be trapped under the surface.

Once the night nanny shows up at the doorstep reporting for duty, the tone of Tully shifts into a balance between suspiciousness and an exhale of relief, showcasing how this new element impacts their happiness levels by working into facets of the family's day-to-day activity. The script from Diablo Cody does fire off a little of that overt wordsmith dialogue found in her earlier screenplays -- such as Marlo comparing herself to a trash boat -- but it's not of the same tempo as Juno and Jennifer's Body, employing a deft, mature touch in how she approaches the psychology of motherhood. The ways she allows Tully to take over certain aspects of her life expresses a bit about the balance between being a good parent and learning how to both let go and accept help from others, deepened by Mackenzie Davis' embodiment of a free-spirited intellect as the nanny. Davis supports the film's credibility during moments when the burdened mother easily opens up about her frustrations, desires, and past, turning what could've been too-quick development into an intriguing, resonant progression of their chemistry.

Throughout most of Tully, the script from Diablo Cody revolves around the surface-level demands thrust upon Marlo, working its way toward themes involving the depression that can stem from post-partum issues as well as from the exhaustion of caring for multiple kids … and neglecting one's well-being. While this might sound overly somber in the same vein as the director's other recent work, Reitman succeeds in developing a sympathetic character drama that toes the line between melancholy and uplifting tones, slipping in rays of triumph and positivity as the night nanny's presence takes effect. Tully doesn't stop there, though, as Diablo Cody dusts off well-worn devices from the realm of psychological drama and works them into her earnest depiction of the maternal mindset. What was already a compelling, evenhanded character drama about parenting and identity grows, through its culmination of ideas at the end, into a meaningful realization of conceptual plotting that deals with things that aren't in any way beyond its maturity level.

Video and Audio:

With Tully, Jason Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg clearly wanted to capture the domestic life with a mixture of mundanity and beauty, moving between home and school atmospheres in ways not unlike their first pairing together, Juno. There's a similar tannish glow to the house and cooler temperatures in places that aren't emotional comfort zones, though there's also a specific degree of intimacy and intrusion of privacy in Tully that takes those watching a little deeper into the emotional nature of the characters during close-ups. Universal's Blu-ray presents the 1.85:1-framed cinematography in unglamorously lovely fashion through its 1080p AVC transfer, heightening details within skin textures and fabrics that heighten that intimacy, boosted by natural flesh tones and little splashes of color that peek out from the warmth. Both indoor and outdoor scenes during daylight are predictably lucid, but the contrast present during darker sequences showcase the transfer's strengths, rendering appropriately warmth in black levels. This strong transfer does nothing but help the film invite its audience into Marlo's space.

Similarly, the sound design for Tully doesn't utilize any glitzy sound effects, focusing instead on upholding a convincingly authentic atmosphere with a few everyday sound effects scattered throughout. Most importantly, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track preserves the strength and resonance of dialogue throughout, adjusting to different scenery and never losing integrity to any surrounding elements. There are only a handful of subtle little effects scattered throughout the film -- splashing milk from a plastic pouch, pounding feet on the back of a car chair, the thud of a portable cradle -- but their clarity ensures that they're discerned loud and clear for effects. Environmental surround inclusions are mostly limited to spikes in music, spiking later on in a few bar-style venues, though there's one particular scene later on that engages the full range of sounds with atmospheric punch. Reitman and his sound designers/editors have carefully constructed the aural environment, and it sounds just right here.

Special Features:

An audio commentary with Jason Reitman alongside Diablo Cody and/or Charlize Theron would've been a great addition here -- he recorded tracks for Juno and Young Adult -- but all we're working with in terms of extras is a ten-minute arrangement of interviews edited together into The Relationships of Tully (10:00, 1080p AVC). Even through interviews, however, Reitman gets insightful points across about his perspective on the drama, female topics, and his cast, while Cody reveals a bit about the trajectory of her writing process and Theron discusses how strongly the character and script resonated with her. There's only so much they can get across in such a short period, but at least they all make the most of their time, and they make sure to not leave the likes of Ron Livingston and Mark Duplass out of the conversation.

Final Thoughts:

Diablo Cody has proven that she can achieve more than just humorous quips with some of her most recent screenplays, but the focus and intimacy of Tully takes that up yet another notch, centering on the tribulations of motherhood both on physical and psychological levels. Leave it to her to break Jason Reitman out of the uneasy and frequently depressing route he's taken with his last few films, though it might not seem quite so on the surface, as if he's going to explore nothing but the burdens of parenting. Instead, the pair have discovered a fine equilibrium between downhearted and hopeful tones in its depiction of strained mother Marlo, her complex family dynamic, and the night nanny -- Tully -- who swoops in to save the day, never shying away from depressing aspects while also drawing out optimism from the situation and focusing on themes of getting help, holding onto identity, and getting older. Driven by Theron's immensely candid performance, it's a beautiful drama that approaches a gripping, observant culmination of emotions and storytelling ideas, and easily stands among Reitman's best directorial efforts and Cody's best screenplays. Very strongly Recommended; despite being a pretty wonderful movie and Blu-ray, the combination of the lack of extras and the shaky replay value (beyond two viewings) keeps it from getting higher marks.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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