The five films by Jason Reitman I have seen are all interesting but flawed except one, Up in the Air (2009), which I find flawless. It is actually a film I would put on at least a top 100 list, if I was asked to provide such a list. Now every time I watch a new Reitman I hope it will be another Up in the Air. So far no such luck.
The new one, Tully, is the third collaboration between Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, and their second film with Charlize Theron, and of the three of them it is Theron I am most happy with this time. I remember back in 2000 a girl I liked told me that Theron was her favourite actress and I was completely bewildered by this (the fact that this is one of the few things I remember about this girl proves how shocking I found her statement to be) but either me or Theron has come a long way since then because now I would not be shocked by such a statement, and she seems fearless in her choice of parts to play. In Tully she plays Marlo, a mother of two kids and one soon to be born, and it is a handful; she is in a constant state of complete exhaustion. The husband/father is kind and does the homework with the kids but he mostly works or plays video games in bed with his headphones on. Of the two children, the girl is functioning just fine but the son has some kind of problem and is very demanding. When the third child appears the stress and sleep-deprivation become even worse of course. The film does not sugar-coat motherhood, and Theron is admirably non-glamorous and it is a fine and honest performance. There is for example one scene where she cannot keep it together after a talk with the school's headmaster about her difficult son, followed by her just screaming in the parking lot, which was very powerful. The title character of the film is the night nanny Marlo finally hires to get some sleep and they soon form a strong bond.
Cody's script has several great ideas and a neat structural cleverness. If you pay attention to the dialogue in the first half you will notice that things happen in the second part which is a reaction to or comment on what was said then, even the odd joke. A lot of craft has gone in to it. A scene with a brush in the beginning and again in the end is quite lovely, and there are other more subtle things I will not mention due to the current spoiler-phobia. But simultaneous with this good writing there are also deep problems with jokes, other lines of dialogue and whole scenes that are awkward, over-emphatic or just wrong. Stuff that probably sounded good in Cody's head when she wrote the script but when it appears on film feels too much like it was meant for us, the audience, and not something that is natural in the scene, in the moment or as something somebody would actually say. One example: Violet, a former roommate of Marlo, has a chance encounter with Marlo at a café and Marlo says she has two kids and one more on the way. The former friend recoils and says "I better go before my coffee gets black and cold like my womb." The line just hangs there in the air, hovering as if in a speech bubble in a cartoon, and spoken without any conviction or timing. You may think that the line, when read in this post, sounds hilarious but that is beside the point. The point is how it sounds when actually spoken in the film. It is not necessarily bad writing, but bad acting and direction.
The Violet character is interesting because that short scene is her only appearance yet her presence lingers on in the film. In one through-away line Marlo says, almost as if talking to herself, that she was in love with Violet. Since you love friends and family but you are not in love with them, that is for lovers and partners, is it that the line should be read literary, that Marlo, although frequently having sex with men and eventually marrying one, would actually have wanted to be in a proper relationship with Violet but did not have the guts to go through with it, and that this is one reason why she is having such a miserable life now? Or was it nothing at all like that; they were just friends and Violet's lingering presence is only there to remind us and Marlo of the life she used to have before marriage, career and children totally boxed her in and drained her of all energy? That this is unclear is not a criticism of the film but one of the good things about it. It is something to play around with and discuss afterwards.
One thing that did bother me was the son Jonah and his problems. The only word used to describe him is "quirky" but that is obviously not appropriate. Marlo says that the doctors' have been unable to diagnose him but he seems to me to have some form of ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, and it does not seem plausible that they would all be in the dark as to what his problems are and what might be done to help out. The school more or less kicks him out. That might be read as a critique of the American school system but it felt so underdeveloped and in fact Jonah's illness or whatever it was did not feel genuine but some vague construction for quick plot points and as such belittling the issue.
So there are some good things and some bad things. The film felt rushed, as if it needed at least one more round in the development stage to whip it all into better shape. But mainly it felt like Theron and Cody were let down by Reitman's direction, there is something about it that feels slightly off, like it is almost there but not quite yet. But, as always with Reitman, the music is impeccable and creatively used. There is for example a Cyndi Lauper medley (from her first album She's So Unusual which Marlo listens to during a drive to Brooklyn) and a beautiful cover version of You Only Live Twice, originally sung by Nancy Sinatra but here by Beulahbelle. So yes, sometimes Tully is very good.
The film Cindy Lauper is watching in the beginning of the video is The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski 1936) one of the very first three-strip Technicolor films (and the first one from David O. Selznick's company). An unbearably stiff and peculiar film, although it looks spectacular.
Here are the other blog texts (in Swedish only):