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'Tully' puts a new spin on nannies

The modern Mary Poppins

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Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron have done it again.

In director Reitman and writer Cody's previous collaboration – the monumentally underrated Young Adult – Theron captured the existential angst of the modern, single, American woman. In Tully, Theron again tackles profound material with intelligence and wit, but this time with a husband, kids and even more angst.

Theron plays Marlo, an overworked, underappreciated mom of three, including a developmentally challenged son and an unplanned newborn. She is stretched to her breaking point while her husband (Ron Livingston), seemingly oblivious to her sleep deprivation, disappears into his video games every night.

But help is on the way. After heeding a suggestion from her brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo hires a night nanny.

"They're like ninjas," Craig says of these nocturnal baby-sitters. "They sneak in and out. You barely know they're there."

But Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a nanny who is impossible to ignore. A chipper, quirky young woman who wants nothing more than to care for kids and restore maternal sanity – while making you forget your milk-engorged breasts and fading youth – she's Mary Poppins for the 21st-century American mother.

"You can't fix the parts without treating the whole," Tully advises Marlo.

"No one's treated my hole in a really long time," Marlo responds.

Fresh off its appearance at the Florida Film Festival, Tully is structurally simpler than 2011's Young Adult and more contrived, but it still has a lot to offer, both comedically and dramatically. It's also more thought-provoking than Reitman and Cody's first film together, 2007's Juno, though the three movies do form an interesting triptych: youth, mid-life crisis and parenthood. The three stories are told from female perspectives, but it's a credit to Cody and Reitman that they resonate just as well with smart male audiences. As usual, Cody's dialogue crackles, but never for the sake of mere amusement. Her insightful subtext stays with you after the laughs fade.

Theron has said she gained almost 50 pounds for the film, but it's not her weight that sells the part. It's her emotional commitment and, seemingly, her shared sensibility with Reitman and Cody. Indeed, when she pleads with her child to suck a pacifier as if her life depended upon it, we feel her exhaustion. "Please take it. Please just take it," she begs her baby, to no avail.

Regrettably, Duplass doesn't have much to do, but Livingston is excellent in a challenging role, as he must portray detachment and lack of empathy while conveying an underlying love and concern for his wife. Described as the bench on the carousel of Marlo's life, he might appear boring, unremarkable and even replaceable. But, like that merry-go-round staple, his value becomes apparent when you realize how much he has to bear. And Davis is memorable too, nicely balancing a cloying creepiness with genuine warmth.

"I'm here to take care of you," Tully assures Marlo. In her own way, she does. And though she's sans a Poppins parasol, this nanny is nevertheless a magical addition to the pantheon of motherhood movies.