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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Tully

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the movie Tully.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

WARNING: Major Spoilers Ahead…!

Clarence:

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is far from loving life. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) are parents of two children with another one almost due. Ron has checked out on the domestic front, Marlo’s son is having developmental problems at school and is looking at expulsion, and there’s general sense that Marlo’s existence is not the one she wanted, which she might be able to do something about if she could find 10 minutes to get some sleep.

After Marlo gives birth to #3, she begins behaving in ways that suggest postpartum depression. Her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny to help her out. Marlo resists at first, but soon Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a twentysomething free spirit whose youthful energy is matched by her earthly wisdom, appears at Marlo’s door, ready and willing to assist. In every way, Tully is exactly what Marlo needs. Whether tending to the newborn, baking cupcakes for school, or jumpstarting Marlo and Drew’s love life, Tully is perfect. Maybe too perfect...

Theron, who is also one of the movie’s producers, is her usual luminous self in her portrayal of Marlo, and has excellent chemistry with Davis. Meanwhile, the rest of the solid cast does the best they can with the material they’re given. The problems with this movie begin and end with the screenplay, which was written by rock-star indie film scribe Diablo Cody. Tully is being marketed as a comedy, but the only laughter I heard from the audience I sat in came during uncomfortable and inappropriate exchanges. It also didn't help that Marlo’s brother and his wife are the one-dimensional epitome of Yuppie Scum, and I can’t tell if Cody is either incapable of or uninterested in portraying them with more nuance.

There are lots of films that present an unrealistic portrayal of parenting as 24/7/365 sunshine and rainbows. Tully goes too far in the other direction in its depiction of child-rearing as a special kind of hell. The filmmakers seem to want to blow the audience’s mind with the truth about raising small children (the messiness, the tantrums, the tedium), but I feel the only people who would get “woke” to this are those who’ve never had children, never spent any time around children, and have never been children themselves.

I won’t give away the movie’s Big Twist (which really isn’t much of one). But I will say that I also didn’t like how it wraps up in a way-too-tidy little bow of an ending that leaves all kinds of questions hanging, such as, how long until Marlo’s next (literal and/or figurative) drive off a cliff?

And I think it’s worth noting that when Marlo pines for her younger years, which she spent hopping in and out of various bars and beds, the former lover on her mind is another female. In a few years this movie might be analyzed not as a story of domestic strife, but a tale of a closeted gay woman struggling to come to terms with the “boring” life she chose for herself. 

Kevin, what do you think about this interpretation? And what did you think of the movie in general?

Kevin:

See, these are the films that we need to hash out in person, Siskel & Ebert style! Ha. I enjoyed Tully much more than you did, Clarence -- which isn't to say that it didn't have its problems. But let me first address some of your points:

1) It didn't take much imagination for this humble scribe to visualize childrearing as an exhausting horrorshow. From all accounts, it's tough enough dealing with just one infant, and director Jason Reitman delivers a montage early on that spins us between diaper-changing, wailing, and assorted spills in rapid-fire fashion. (The crying especially left me in a fetal position -- no pun intended -- by the conclusion.) But Marlo's got three little kids, including a "quirky" kindergarten-age son with behavioral issues, and I read some post-film discussion which suggested that the story hinted at autism in his case. A bit of helpful info -- I've never had children, don't spend much time around children, and never had any younger siblings as a kid. I also enjoy lots and lots of quiet. As such, I thought it commendable that Marlo didn't develop a drinking problem during this ordeal. 

2) I thought the Big Twist was rather big indeed? [SPOILER] We eventually learn that "Tully," the savior who arrives to serve as a night nanny/guru to the frazzled Marlo, is actually a product of Marlo's sleep-deprived imagination, a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club. And more specifically, Tully is a manifestation of Marlo's younger self, representing her worldview at that time in her life. 

Yes, it's a bit of a stretch. For one thing, I was puzzled early on as to why Drew didn't seem interested in at least a perfunctory meeting with the stranger who'd be watching over his daughter? Later, there's a bedroom scene that makes sense from Marlo and Drew's perspectives... but not from ours at the time? (Marlo invites Tully to engage in some salacious "role-playing" with Drew; later, we understand it was Marlo the entire time, but I was thinking, "what postpartum mom eagerly invites her attractive young nanny to shack up with her husband?")

3) I didn't see the twist coming, but I also rolled with it afterwards. This may sound odd considering the fact that this tale involves an imaginary person, but Marlo's existence still felt quite real to me? Aside from the interplay with Craig's way-too-cool wife (to say nothing of their family's vegan nanny), Charlize Theron brought an authenticity to her character and her humdrum exchanges with Livingston's Drew. "Lives of quiet desperation" is an oft-quoted phrase, but it's very true for many of us. And as Marlo realizes later, providing a stable and "boring" home for her family is nothing to be ashamed of. 

4) Agreed in that Marlo's mental condition is quite serious indeed -- how far off the reservation does an adult need to be before one constructs phantom friends? And even the "peace" that Marlo achieves at the conclusion still involves a last hurrah from Tully! What are you thinking about all this if you're her husband? What do you do when your spouse isn't a Reliable Narrator about... life? 

5) Did you ever see Young Adult, the previous Theron/Cody/Reitman collaboration from 2011? I enjoyed that film a whole bunch -- it's also much more of a comedy (albeit a brutally dark one) than Tully, a film that thankfully didn't attempt to go for too many cheap laughs. The Cody/Reitman duo (sans Theron) also paired up in 2008 on Juno, a hit which put Cody on the map as a screenwriting talent and featured a hellacious soundtrack of (mostly) indie-pop gems from Kimya Dawson. 

5a) On a musical tangent, what'd you think of that Cyndi Lauper-fueled drive to Brooklyn...? 

Clarence:

Cyndi Lauper is exactly the kind of artist I'd expect to find in a Diablo Cody film. Maybe a little too on the nose, but a good choice - Lauper is a fantastic singer. The trip into Manhattan itself seems to run against the grain of typical cinema journeys, which involve finding something new (new love, new fortune, new discoveries). Marlo is desperately trying to find what she had before becoming a mom, and instead of a grand movie-like adventure, she wants her life to be like a sitcom where all problems are temporary and ultimately nothing changes.

I wanted to mention one particular scene that I loved. Margo is taking her son to a new school after he is kicked out of his private school due to his behavior. He needs to go to the bathroom. Margo stands outside and asks him to flush. But he doesn't like loud noises. When he hears the whooshing of the pipes, he loses it. Margo is trying desperately to calm him down just as a random adult walks by, observing the situation. Margo is turning red from shame, but the man knows exactly what to do, calming down her son in a matter of minutes by playing a quick game where they pretend to be trees. He then assures Margo there's nothing to be embarrassed about, and continues on his way.

THAT was the movie I wanted to keep watching. It highlights how a quality public school teacher is a magical being who is worth their weight in gold. It also says something about Margo. Did you notice, Kevin, that Margo doesn't seem to have any friends? And that the only support network she seemed to have was from the private school her brother was paying for? These are interesting unexplored aspects of Margo's life that might have made for a better narrative.

My parents managed to raise four children without the kind of psychotic break Marlo experiences. Of course, we also had the benefits of extended families on both sides, good public schools to attend, and safe neighborhoods to live in. I'm trying to think of a movie produced between 1950 and, say, the 1980s that also depicts a situation similar to Marlo's and I can't think of any - can you? Is it because the pundits are right and The Greatest Generation really is better than what came after? I doubt it. It might have something to do with expectations, though.

I recently read a very interesting article in The Atlantic about the "New American Aristocracy". These are the folks in the top 10% of household net worth (as opposed to the 1% that gets the most critical attention) whose lives are defined by privilege, comfort, and, it turns out, an incredible amount of anxiety about themselves and their family's futures. Basically, their accumulated dollars don't buy as much as they used to (what with the sky-high costs of maintaining a home in a good neighborhood, raising and educating children, and other things) and there is a constant real risk that their wealth could vanish at any moment due to a job loss or medical emergency. In this context, I have a little more sympathy for Marlo and Drew's situation. Being upper-middle class in America is not fun, and it makes sense that, in certain cases, "escape" must come in unexpected forms.

Kevin, between this movie and the last Fourth Wall feature, Hollywood's vision of what was once called the Nuclear Family seems not just under threat, but psychologically toxic. How much of this do you think is cynicism, and how much of it is an exaggerated but honest assessment of what it's like to live the "American Dream?"

Kevin:

When Marlo's life starts turning around due to her "help," the first thing that ran through my mind was, "this is great, but what about all the other families that don't have rich benefactors to help pay for round-the-clock care?" There are million directions one can go from here. How has childrearing evolved with the explosion of moms in the workforce? (Though notably, Tully doesn't seem to have a full-time job.) Are extended families involved as much as they used to be? (I'm guessing no, except for more recent immigrants, who probably are closer in proximity.) And how have our standards for what constitutes "good care" evolved? I'm sure you and I had a much longer leash than the average kid today, Clarence, and that more watchful eye comes with a cost as well. 

You make a great observation about how Marlo doesn't seem to have any friends -- and neither does her husband for that matter, outside of any folks he might play Call of Duty with online. It's something I've noticed with my own parents, and also with friends who've moved with their spouses to new locations where they had no social networks. If they make friends with anyone, it's generally the parents of their kids' friends, and these seem to be more happenstance than any genuine connection based on interests or personality. Children suck up the time that would generally be devoted towards hobbies that may lead to friendships, right? And I'm also reminded of a classic Seinfeld bit which talks about how it's tougher to make friends in general as one gets older. 

As far as earlier films which depict the mental exhaustion involved with raising kids, the most prominent one which comes to mind is 1979's Kramer vs Kramer. At the outset of the film, Joanna (Meryl Streep) decides that she's had enough of raising a child, and leaves to "find herself." Shortly thereafter, her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) discovers just how much of an absentee parent he had been in the past, and the first few months for him as a single dad are torturous for him and his son. Adding to the tension are the locale (NYC, always a bit of a pressure-cooker) and the fact that Joanna returns later and seeks custody of their child. 

Most television shows have historically seemed to sidestep all the stresses involved with childrearing? You generally see kids in sitcoms, and depicting depressed, exhausted, friendless parents is a bit of a downer! What do we see? Immaculate homes, regardless of the number of children living there. Well-adjusted kids. Patient parents. And so on. 

[The drama The Wire broke all these molds when it came to the realistic depiction of a school-age set in seasons 4 and 5 -- one of the many reasons it was one of the greatest shows of all time.]

Is the classic Nuclear Family now seen to be toxic? It's no secret that cynicism and distrust in institutions has skyrocketed in recent decades. We're a more medicated populace as well, though if anything, our collective mental health seems to be getting worse, not better. Were those vintage Hollywood portrayals of idyllic families shams from the start? It seems that adults largely used to feel at ease with those pristine families on screen... whereas perhaps now they might feel resentful that their own lives don't measure up, and so the deconstruction of these families is what we now find appealing?

Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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