Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.
Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.
Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.