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'Tully' review: Charlize Theron shines in this unpredictable but moving comedy-drama

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in "Tully."

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in "Tully." Credit: Focus Features/Kimberly French

PLOT An exhausted mother of three turns to a night-nanny for help.

CAST Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston

RATED R (language, sexuality, adult themes)

LENGTH 1:35

BOTTOM LINE An unpredictable and moving comedy-drama, with beautiful performances from Theron and newcomer Davis.

“Tully” is a movie that can be easily described but not so easily explained. It's about a middle-aged mom who turns to a younger nanny for help, but that deceptively simple story takes on a range of unpredictable moods and shadings: wryly funny, claustrophobic, emotionally shattering. It's never quite clear where “Tully” is heading until, in a revelatory moment, it gets there.

Initially, “Tully” seems like another episode of Hipsters in Crisis: Marlo (Charlize Theron), a onetime Williamsburg wild thing, has just given birth to her third child with Drew (Ron Livingston), a great guy who's solid as a rock, and about as interesting. As Marlo's life becomes an endless series of needy cries, swollen breasts and sleepless nights, she breaks down and allows her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), to pay for a night nanny.

“Tully” shifts in mood when this moonlight Mary Poppins — the Tully of the title — shows up at Marlo's door. She's an immediately riveting presence, played to perfection by Mackenzie Davis (AMC's “Halt and Catch Fire”), whose eyes glisten with kindness, generosity and, perhaps, a touch of mania. As Marlo dozes through a blessedly uninterrupted night, Tully soothes the baby, cleans the house and even bakes cupcakes. “I'm like Saudi Arabia,” she says brightly. “I have an energy surplus.”

That's a great line, one of many that glimmer throughout “Tully,” which was written by Diablo Cody (the script was inspired by the birth of her third child) and directed by Jason Reitman. Those filmmakers and their star, Theron, also gave us the dark character-study “Young Adult,” and “Tully” feels like a companion piece. It's another story about a woman on the edge, and in its way even darker. Marlo, physically wrung out by childbirth — Theron gained a visible 50 pounds for the role — regards Tully's flat midriff and carefree attitude with a complicated mix of fondness, bitterness and suspicion.

Why is this lovely young stranger so understanding, so insightful, so presumptuously intimate, when it comes to Marlo's needs? That question won't be answered until the end, when everything in “Tully” falls perfectly and heartbreakingly into place.

THE MANY ROLES OF THERON

Over her roughly 25-year career, Charlize Theron has tackled dramas, comedies, action flicks and more. Here are four more movies highlighting her range and versatility:

The Cider House Rules (1999) Theron's breakout role came opposite Tobey Maguire in this John Irving adaptation. She plays Candy Kendall, a young woman who comes to an illegal abortion clinic in Maine. 

Monster (2003) Theron dispelled any notion she was just a pretty face when she gained 30 pounds and wore prosthetic teeth to play the serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The performance earned her an Oscar for best actress.
Young Adult (2011) In her previous collaboration with her “Tully” writer and director, Theron played an alcoholic writer who returns to her hometown to seduce an old beau (Patrick Wilson) but ends up reckoning with her past self.

Atomic Blonde (2017) Theron cranked her sex-appeal up to 11 in this espionage thriller set against the fall of the Berlin Wall. Critics scoffed, but action fans will find it a stylish, stunt-driven treat.                 — RAFER GUZMAN

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