The ennui of a white, middle-aged suburban mother gets the full treatment from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman in the comedy-drama "Tully." By stretching out various tendrils -- the recognition that domesticity and parenthood mean missing out on free-wheeling adventures, the midlife crisis of youth slipping away, post-partum depression, the struggle to raise an atypical child, middle-class jealousy of conspicuous wealth (or, from another perspective, relatively more conspicuous wealth) -- Cody cannily ensures that a large number of audience members will relate and, therefore, feel. Never mind that, by picture's end, your every chain has been yanked.
Charlize Theron plays Marlo, the white suburban mother in question. Though Theron's beauty hardly dims behind tired eyes and mussed hair, the Oscar winner vividly projects a pre-partum depression from the film's opening moments. Already a mother of two -- an 8-year-old girl, and a kindergarten-aged boy on the autism spectrum -- Marlo feels the literal and figurative weight of a belly that's "about to pop" while her recklessly aloof husband (Ron Livingston) works and plays as if he has no responsibility to the pregnancy. Theron's eyes -- and Cody's signature dark humor -- tell the tale of a woman who isn't sure she can handle any more, but her unplanned pregnancy isn't going anywhere ... other than a fresh round of sleepless nights and painful breastfeeding.
Enter infant Mia, followed shortly by Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a "night nanny" suggested by Marlo's well-off brother (Mark Duplass) as a life-changing gift. Despite her apprehensions, Marlo finds that the skinny, pretty, energetic 26-year-old who invades her life is both a distressing reminder of Marlo's own lost youth and exactly what the doctor ordered. Tully immediately alleviates Marlo's load as the perfect nanny, tending to Mia while going the extra mile (house cleaning, muffin baking) to rescue Marlo from her torpor. Inevitably, ultra-competence and out-sized generosity turn to female bonding of the highest order and from-the-mouth-of-babe wisdom that amounts to life coaching for Marlo's motherhood, marriage and very spirit.
Of course, "Tully" has a shoe to drop, and it's a doozy. A late reveal explains away certain bizarre details while creating what for some will be an unforgivable contrivance. Given the predominantly indie-realist tone taken by Cody and Reitman, the film's endgame proves a dishonest invalidation of much of what has come before while amplifying one of the film's most insistent themes. The gambit is annoying, but most will extend the film the courtesy to accept its poignancy. (On reflection, Cody's idea made me wish for a cinematic switcheroo at the multiplex: Melissa McCarthy in a broadly wacky version of "Tully" and Theron in an earnest comedic-dramatic take on McCarthy's back-to-college comedy "Life of the Party." If you see both, give that a spin in your imagination.)
Reitman, Cody, and Theron have collaborated before, on the 2011 comedy-drama "Young Adult," and each has gifts useful to the others: Reitman's competent construction, Cody's empathy-with-zingers style, and Theron's equally full-bore commitment to resonant depth of feeling.
"Tully" turns out to be not so much insightful as bluntly cathartic for a certain segment of the movie-going audience eager to vomit up their neuroses along with Marlo. As well played (some might say "sold") by Theron and Davis, "Tully" almost gets away with some nonsensical shenanigans.