‘Tully’: The Cheap Thrill Of Mental Illness

Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman are both talented, smart people which makes you wonder why they made a self-indulgent mess like Tully, their third collaboration together. Tully tells the story of forty-year-old Marlo, played by Charlize Theron, a mom challenged by raising two young children and saddled with a dull husband. It all gets worse when a third ‘oops’ baby arrives and mom is so desperate for help she is willing to hire a night nanny named Tully, a servant who watches the baby while mom and dad get a solid eight hour snooze.

As cinema, Tully starts out well. Cody is a natural writer who presents a perspective on motherhood rarely seen, one that variously plays like a horror film, a dark comedy, and raises our expectations that this might be more than a shallow Hollywood family drama. It’s a well-made film, and we feel like we’re in the hands of talented filmmakers. Cody’s dialogue has wit and cynical bite, yet also rings true to life. Cody uses the familiar dramatic tactic of placing her heroine in situations of escalating trouble. This almost always makes for good films, especially in thrillers and action movies. It’s refreshing to see it deployed so effectively in a domestic setting. Tully and Marlo have a budding friendship that hits all the right beats. You feel real chemistry between them. Tully comes across as a Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl, but that’s the point. Sometimes older people need younger people to teach them how to enjoy life again.

The characters offer charm, as long as we ignore the slightly weird subject the movie explores. A married white woman raising her family in a stable suburban home is a first world problem, especially when both husband and wife have well-paying white collar jobs, with maternity leave. While not rich, this family has enough money to send their ‘quirky’ son to a private school, where deferential blacks and Asians care for him. In fact, the family’s lack of wealth demonstrates how much their whiteness entitles them. Cody and Reitman are running a ‘poor me’ con-job on us. The want us to feel empathy and pity for Marlo, despite the fact she’s the pampered mom in a comfortable middle class American dream. This film would be inconceivable if you flipped the races and it was centered on a poor black family. Black people in America face bigger problems than just postpartum depression.

Worst, after eighty indulgent minutes, Cody and Reitman deliver a cowardly plot twist to undercut everything that came before it. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW) It turns out that Tully is a figment of Marlo’s harried imagination. Either a fantasy, a wish, a memory, or a borderline psychotic break into mermaid-laced schizophrenia. At this moment, so late in the film, you realize the filmmakers were playing us for suckers all along.

M. Night Shyamalan made his reputation by writing and directing movies with surprising twist endings, most successfully The Sixth Sense (1999). If Diablo Cody insists on heading down a similar path, she should just return to her previous career as a stripper. That’s a more honest way of teasing and frustrating her audience. Surprise twists have been mocked for millennia in drama, the Greeks even had a term for it: deus ex machina. It’s a desperation move to save a weak story and provoke interest.

To an educated viewer, there’s nothing original about presenting the imagined world of a character as reality. Ambrose Bierce used this device in his 1890 short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, effectively ripping off Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. Sometimes fantasies can work, as in Dorothy Gale’s imagined dream-trip to Oz in The Wizard of Oz (1939). More recently, Fight Club (1999), Shelter Island (2003), and Inception (2010) have each tried the gambit of questioning the underlying reality of the movie, with varying success. Even the ending to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 (2012) toys with our emotions by first presenting an alternate reality in the climactic battle scene.

Filmmakers of Cody and Reitman’s caliber are schooled enough in the history of cinema to know better than this. Relying on characters having imaginary friends to create drama can work, but it’s not the world we know. And taken too far, it’s just manipulative bullshit.

With the right setup, trips into fantasy can be fun and refreshing. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Family Man (2000), starring Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle, and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), with Will Smith and Matt Damon, are all about the mysterious figure who mystically appears to help a frustrated protagonist gain a new perspective on life. What Cody and Reitman fail to grasp is these kind of stories actually work better if the viewer knows early on that the imaginary character is not real but magical, a thing of wonder.

There’s no magic in Marlo’s tilt into madness and no wonder by bringing Tully in to solve her problems. The hard fact is this insensitive film uses severe depression and mental illness to entertainment us. It’s so bluntly offensive, you know that Cody and Reitman don’t understand what their movie is really about. They think they’re making a film about the difficulties of motherhood and the harsh realities of growing older. They’re wrong. By the logic of their own twist ending, Tully explores a mentally ill woman who is suffering from schizophrenic delusions and damaging the lives of those around her in the process. She is disengaged from reality. Her ignored son acts out, seeking attention. Her husband, played by Ron Livingston, has grown distant from her behavior and has no idea WTF is going on.

In the last minutes of the movie, an emergency room doctor asks if Marlo has a history of mental illness, and nobody really wants to say “yes” because that answer is neither funny, charming, nor cute — and no amount of clever Diablo Cody dialogue can make a fun Hollywood movie out of mental illness. The movie refuses to grapple with the consequences of Marlo’s erratic behavior and her psychotic breaks with reality in a forthright manner, the way A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Birdman (2014) do effectively. It’s immoral filmmaking when you have a chance to talk about the ravages of depression and mental illness but instead choose to wisecrack girly in-jokes about breast pumps and baby bumps. All the elements are present in Tully to bring awareness to a hidden disease (mental illness) that silently plagues America, but that’s not much fun at the movies, so the filmmakers drop the ball.

Given Theron’s outstanding performance, Tully should be as deeply moving and emotional as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (2016). But instead of delving into the madness and writing a serious film exploring serious issues and themes, Cody instead opts for the cheap thrill of a twist ending and runs afoul of her own clever dialogue. Worse, she offers no clear resolutions to Marlo’s mental illness. She doesn’t attempt to address or even fully admit it’s a problem before the film ends.

Real life and real human emotions are always far more dramatic and entertaining than stupid plot contrivances used to surprise the audience. Maybe if Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman had their own Manic-Pixie-Dream-Nanny guiding them, they would’ve learned this lesson. Unfortunately for us, they took the cowardly way out.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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