Oh Good, Another Difficult Movie
Time to chat about real shit again
Mental illness is a concept that has a…complicated relationship with Hollywood. While some films like Inside Out and Memento have explored difficult ailments like emotional breakdowns and retrograde amnesia with artistic success, others like Unsane are bit more…theatrical rather than making something closer to a reflection of reality. Nonetheless, the duo of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman team up for their first movie in 7 years together to craft a story all about postpartum depression in their trademarked dramedic style that made them icons with Juno. So how did the pair do in their fourth collaboration? Like every movie either has made since Juno, it’s a mixed bag.
So Marlo (Charlize Theron) starts the film off as the expectant mother of her third child with her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston). The pregnancy wasn’t exactly planned as the couple has had their struggles in raising their two children, Emmy and Jonah, the latter appears to be on the autistic spectrum but his parents aren’t sure. To alleviate the arrival of the newborn, Marlo’s wealthy but overbearing brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), offers to pay for the services of a night nanny to allow Marlo and Drew to rest at night with the nanny only interrupting the mother to nurse the baby. At first, Marlo is resistant to the idea, but after one breakdown too many, she agrees to the night nanny’s services . Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl…I mean, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), to get Marlo’s life back on track.
So first things first, the performances in this film are all around great, particularly from Charlize Theron. This is a hardly surprising fact, but Theron once again demonstrates a range of emotions in a single film effectively and believably compared to her many contemporaries. She certainly gives a far more raw performance here than in her last production with this same writer and director, Young Adult. While the subject matter certainly helps in giving Theron a wide berth of actions to take in the early weeks of raising a newborn that will likely give major flashbacks to veteran parents and strike terror in the hearts of parents-to-be. What helps Theron is that she rarely plays her role hot and overly dramatic, but reserved and barely-contained frustration that’s plain to read on her face as she struggles with her identity as a mother. This is especially true in several instances where Marlo has to give glib responses to judgmental individuals who question some of her parental decisions, and Theron’s pitch-perfect retorts communicate so much emotion.
While Duplass and Livingston showed up to work, neither has a major focal point in the film but they do just fine with what they’re given. Mackenzie Davis’ performance as the titular Tully is…complicated to say the least. She acted well in her role, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has been roundly criticized for a good reason, and Davis embodies it fully with her excited demeanor and can-do attitude to please Marlo in any way she can. Unlike other Manic Pixie Dream Girls however, the character of Tully isn’t a romantic interest that motivates an awkward male protagonist but a woman dedicated to reminding Marlo how great it is to be a mother in the eyes of a wistful twenty-something. However, her character’s action in the final 30 minutes of the film are rife with…issues.
What I can give away without dropping into spoilers, which I will not do for this film, is that Tully’s presence is very critical for the film’s discussion of postpartum depression when it comes to Marlo. However, I would argue that the film gives an overtly simplistic take on the subject, which is all the more frustrating given how well the first third of the movie was doing in selling me on the idea of watching Marlo’s struggles throughout her third child’s infancy. As the second act rolls around and Tully enters the picture, she serves as a band aid for an increasingly stressed psyche but the film instead hypes her up as some kind of miracle worker. There is, of course, a reason for this that becomes evident in the final 12 minutes of the film, but I honestly believe we got an inferior product by Tully’s inclusion to the piece.
Her function is mostly to serve as a therapist for Charlize Theron’s Marlo to vent her frustrations about her age and about being mother. The conversations are fine, but they also kill the decent pacing the first third of the film was expertly handling, leaving a middle portion that just feels aimless by comparison to the strong first third and the bananas ending. While some of this dialogue brushes up on the edges of postpartum depression, it’s not a particularly deep dive into the subject; hinting at far more deeply rooted problems the film doesn’t get into via either deliberate choice on part of the filmmakers or as a result of post-production editing when Reitman and Cody realized what they had made didn’t work. And to their respective credits, they each did well in their respective roles: Cody’s patented smart dialogue shines through but comes across as far more believable from the mouths of experienced adults as opposed to smartass teenagers; and Reitman confidently directs his actors with competent, if not spectacular, cinematography. But then the final 15 minutes of the film comes and suddenly all goodwill I had for this film instantly dissipated.
It’s not infuriatingly awful that I have to go at length to talk about it, but it makes certain odd choices the film takes that make more sense hindsight and others that feel more messy than anything. I think the twist was properly set up, but it launched me out of the film like a goddamn trebuchet, so I can’t really attach myself to the final product all that much. Further, it actually damages the whole postpartum depression discussion with an angle that is seriously unnecessary and absolutely incorrect that I think several mothers will be fully justified in taking great umbrage with the decision.
The film, at the end of the day, starts strong before taking a noticeable plunge in quality as it wears on. What saves the film from mediocrity is the high caliber performance of Charlize Theron selling you in every single scene of the film. So for her, I can offer this movie a better-than-it-deserves high…
Like what you see? Don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to The After Lobby! The reviews are also supported through Patreon! Click the link below to find out more!