Nanny knows best

Charlize Theron plays a mother at the end of her rope in <i>Tully</i>.

Charlize Theron plays a mother at the end of her rope in Tully.

Rated 3.0

Tully, from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, is yet another one of those movies that offer up parenthood, and particularly motherhood, as nothing less than hell on Earth. There’s everything but a sign over the maternity ward door: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

The damned soul in Tully is Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of two in suburban New York with No. 3 arriving any minute. Her eight-year-old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) is well-adjusted and gifted, while six-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is a handful; he requires daily body-brushing, compulsively kicks the back of Marlo’s seat while she’s driving, and flies into hysterics at the sound of a flushing toilet. In the safety of the theater we think of autism, but nobody in Tully mentions the word; everyone just calls him “quirky.” In any case, Jonah’s school insists that he needs a personal aide, which the school won’t pay for and neither Marlo nor husband Drew (Ron Livingston) can afford.

The thought of another child has the forty-something Marlo at the end of her rope, and her hotshot brother (Mark Duplass) doesn’t help by offering to pay for a “night nanny” to help her out; she takes it as his way of calling her an unfit mother. But once baby Mia arrives, after a few days of constant squalling, dirty diapers and spilling breast pumps, Marlo surrenders and calls the number on the nanny’s card.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) in the dead of night, a cheerful millennial with a placid smile, a retro-’60s wardrobe, and a stream of patter wise beyond her 26 years. “I’m here to take care of you,” Tully purrs. She sends Marlo to bed, to be gently half-wakened when Mia needs feeding, and Marlo gets her best night’s sleep in years.

Night after night Tully returns. Before long, Marlo’s attitude is brighter and her once kid-ravaged home is neat as a pin all thanks to Tully’s industrious nighttime ministrations, dispensed with sunny wisdom. “You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth-graders,” Marlo tells her. Tully even goes to bed with Drew, rejuvenating a sex life that has languished for years.

Things come to a head when Tully coaxes Marlo into a girls’ night out, bar-hopping around Marlo’s old stamping ground in Bushwick. This millennial Mary Poppins finally breaks the news that it’s time for her to move on, and the secret of her ability to ease Marlo’s burdens finally comes to light.

Diablo Cody’s script has its facile moments, but it also reflects her ear for clever dialogue and eye for revealing details. It provides as well a framework for Reitman and Theron to create sympathy for Marlo even when she’s most harried and unreasonable. And the casting of Theron with Davis is inspired; their screen personae and characters mesh neatly, making the movie’s outcome ring truer than it might otherwise.

The movie has its surprises that aren’t all that surprising, but it has a sweetness that makes us hope every mother finds her own personal Tully.