Fearless: Clichéd Compliment is Fitting for Theron’s Marlo in “Tully”

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Jason Reitman’s “Tully.” | Photo courtesy of Focus Features

REVIEW BY PUMA PERL (screened at the Tribeca Film Festival) | It may be a cliché to describe Charlize Theron’s performance in the sharply written “Tully” as “fearless” — but like many clichés, it’s fitting and I imagine it will be widely used by critics. Her character, Marlo, is an overwhelmed mother of three, including the unplanned birth of a newborn, and she is suffering a horrific bout of postpartum depression; the script alludes to a prior depressive episode following the birth of her older son. Theron has already proven that she is unafraid to transform herself, in her Oscar-winning portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.”

This film brings the audience headfirst into the way the character’s depression feels: dead, hopeless, desperate — an endless loop of the crying baby, school conferences, diaper changes, sore nipples, and frozen pizza dinners. Add in exhaustion, a 50-pound weight gain, junk food, and mind-numbing television. Once a creative, vital person, Marlo still manages sardonic comebacks, even when she barely holds it together. In one scene, she carefully places the baby in the car, and then stands outside and screams until she is able to drive again.

Marlo’s husband, Drew, played by Ron Livingston, is basically a good guy who is immersed in his role as breadwinner. He helps the kids with their homework, and then escapes into video games. He loves his family but he’s often away on business trips and is not very present even when at home. Their son, Jonah, is the subject of the endless school conferences; his behavior is continually described as “quirky” although his actions and reactions suggest the possibility of autism. The eight-year-old daughter, Sara, is, as they say in family therapy, “the lost child,” as attention is focused on her disruptive younger brother and the new baby.

(lL to R: Mackenzie Davis as Tully and Charlize Theron as Marlo. | Photo by Kimberly French, courtesy of Focus Features

Into this mix comes the “night nanny,” a gift from Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass). He introduces this offer as he shows her his new built-in, garish tiki bar. He’s a guy with a dog called “Prosecco,” so why wouldn’t he have a tiki bar? She initially rejects the idea, but, after too many sleepless nights, gives in. There’s a knock at the door late at night, interrupting her regular viewing of a porn show called “Gigolos,” and Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, a sparkling, magical millennial, enters, announcing, “I am here to take care of you.” The next morning, Sara wonders, “Why is the house so clean?” Tully is wise beyond her years, and, according to director Jason Reitman (in fine form here, as he was with “Juno”), the image of Marlo’s younger self.

I am not going to reveal the twists that follow the appearance of the “night nanny” except to say that this is where the film, in some ways, went a bit awry for me. However, even the most unrealistic scenes are directed in a way that makes sense, and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s ear for dialogue is unfailing. For me, Theron’s performance held the film together. It was remarked about Robert DeNiro’s Oscar win for “Raging Bull” that the 60 pounds he gained for the final scene contributed to the award. Theron carries that weight from a place deep within, and her performance is, for lack of a better word, fearless.

Rated R. Runtime: 96 minutes. For local screening locations and to purchase tickets, visit focusfeatures.com.

L to R: Charlize Theron and director Jason Reitman on the set of “Tully,” a Focus Features release. | Photo by Kimberly French, courtesy of Focus Features

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