a film by Jason Reitman, script by Diablo Cody
Reviewed by Robert Booth
Jason Reitman, director of this movie about family life and postpartum depression, tries to force a comedy out of the materials of tragedy. Marlo, 40, the wife/mother at the heart of things, is played by Charlize Theron, who put on 50 pounds and a sheen of sweat to play this role. The film begins with white privilege and stays there throughout, in a hot-house of fraught relationships, woman-man, parents-children, brother-sister, with overlays of class and mental-health issues.
We are introduced to a nuclear family that is having a meltdown: Marlo, long out of the HR workforce, is overwhelmed by caring for two young school-aged children, even as she is about to have a third (presented to us as “an accident”); Drew (Ron Livingston) the husband-father, is neither—affectless, unconscious, and not present, he can barely hold onto his vague auditor’s job, which requires much travel. We believe that she and he were once in love, but what’s love got to do with it now? The happiness and satisfaction that are assumed to be at the core of family life are entirely absent, and we dread the consequences to the stolid, sinking Marlo.
The adults are not up to the demands that they have placed on themselves, especially in relation to, if not in competition with, Marlo’s rich brother and his wife, who have a lifestyle in which the raising of the children is outsourced. Marlo and Drew might want that for themselves, but they don’t have the money, so they’re stuck with their children. The brother, anticipating the impact of a baby on this mess, offers to hire them a night nanny so that husband and wife can have time for rest and each other. At first, Marlo resists, but after the uneventful birth she finds she can’t cope: this baby, Mia (Marlo seems to forget her name at one point) is presented as a siren going off all night, with only Marlo to meet her needs, unassisted by lumpen Drew, a bedtime video-game addict whose main talent (channeled from the 1950s evidently) is to sleep through Marlo-Mia’s nightly crises.
Here’s the moment in which Marlo, the former HR expert and beneficiary of healthcare insurance, might have turned, or been led, to therapy rather than to drift helplessly in the absence of clinical assistance or family-systems supports. Not in this script: here, no one notices anything about Marlo’s struggles, and she seems doomed until the sudden arrival of Tully, the good-fairy night-nanny who changes everything. Clap your hands.
Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a 26-year-old sprite of preternatural empathy and baby-knowledge in whose arms the screeching child subsides to contentment. This shaman-gamin night-visitor, with a line of New Age patter, is presented as a healer of all that been going wrong between Marlo and her baby, Marlo and her soul, and (at one point) Marlo and her carnally challenged husband. Marlo, who has recurring amniotic mermaid dreams, feels her depression lift. While she makes no closer bond with Mia than her joyless breastfeeding (breast pumps appear like vampire bats), she connects deeply with Tully, the slim, feckless embodiment of all that Marlo gave up to become a mama and wife.
Toward the end, the movie veers off into Marlo-Tully adventures, shorn of the family enmeshment; we are treated to Marlo’s clueless encounter with an old lover, a Scrooge-like trip to her past neighborhood, and a night out that devolves from a club scene to a seedy bar, imperiling our two middle-class heroines. But wait: contrary to earlier evidence, we are now asked to question Tully’s existence (A clue! Tully is Margo’s former surname!). Tully, what’s happening? First you, a maybe-hallucination, have Marlo embracing her former wild child, and then you clobber her with a dose of bourgie wisdom and a paean to boredom, squareness, and repetition.
Since there’s no apparent integration or reconciliation of Marlo’s two identities, we fear for her, especially since Tully-belle threatens to vanish; and sure enough, something terrible happens involving those recurrent mermaids. The rest is treacle, with redemption for the nuclear family and a final husband-wife scene redolent of a Cialis ad.
Despite goodish performances by Theron (often under the weather) and Davis (sometimes over the top), director Reitman and writer Cody deliver an unfunny comedy, a fairy-story-tragedy, commercially calculated and mashed together with unearned mysteries and unresolved issues about a subject that deserves a far better examination than this, and gets it with, say, Jon Avnet’s Susanna (new web series) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.