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'Tully'

Gentle 'Tully' is the anti-'Matrix'

Friday, May 16, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

With all the hoopla surrounding this weekend's blockbuster Hollywood release, which will sell enough tickets in three days to finance a hundred low-budget independents, it seems almost perverse that "Tully" arrives in Pittsburgh at the same time on one lonely screen at the Oaks Theater.

 
 
'TULLY'

RATING: R for language and some sexual content.P>

STARRING: Anson Mount, Julianne Nicholson, Glenn Fitzgerald, Bob Burrus.

DIRECTOR: Hilary Birmingham

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If ever a movie qualified as the anti-"Matrix," this quietly moving family drama is it. There is nothing virtual about the reality of "Tully," a movie that has been stuck in distribution hell for almost three years.

It takes place on a Nebraska farm, where a single father is bringing up his two strapping sons. Tully Coates Jr. (Anson Mount) is a ladies' man whose current love interest is April (Catherine Kellner), a stripper. His brother, Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), has a hankering for freckle-faced Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson), although he fears she may favor Tully and vice versa.

They work, they play, they mosey on through the lazy, hazy days of summer. Their domestic tranquillity is shattered when the elder Tully (Bob Burrus) gets a letter saying the bank is about to foreclose, even though he's up on his payments.

The events behind this sudden setback dredge up some old family secrets that might seem melodramatic in another film but not here, not after all the care director and co-writer Hilary Birmingham has taken to root it and her characters in the good earth they inhabit.

A typical Hollywood movie would have these two young men itching to leave the farm life behind for a little excitement in the big city. It would have its characters rutting like animals in the barnyard (we see Tully and April only in the aftermath of sex, and there's even a kind of innocence in her straightforward conniving). It would sneer at country life and invest the characters with the kind of American Gothic you might expect from David Lynch or Wes Craven.

In contrast, "Tully" moves with the deliberate rhythms of real life and takes the time to develop its characters enough so that we may feel they have lives independent of the movie they inhabit. These boys are still searching for answers to the big questions, but seem to have the small ones in hand -- at least, until a whole clutch of new ones crop up.

The movie benefits from solid acting performances throughout. Mount has the looks for Tully, but also gives him a kind of wistfulness that brings out a childlike wonder in him. He likes to drive his car into the middle of a cow pasture in the dead of night to think things through. He talks about gazing at a tall antenna tower and imagining that it could broadcast his thoughts to anyone he desires. If only.

Typically, the younger brother gets less to do, but Fitzgerald is up to the task when Earl moves to the forefront later on. Burrus as the father, Tully Sr., gives the film its bedrock. The old man takes no nonsense and keeps his own counsel (until he must turn to a lawyer about the eviction notice). A friendly store clerk remarks that she can't say she's ever seen him smile and notes that he always buys a sixpack of the same beer at the same time every week. But his regularity sets the stage for the revelations -- and the fateful events -- that follow.

The best performance may be that of Nicholson as Ella Smalley, a name that echoes her seeming ordinariness. Her simple clothes and slight figure may make her seem like a tomboy, but not to Earl and Tully.

Like them -- like all of us -- she bears her sadnesses. But the more we get to know of her, the more she seems to almost glow from inside. She's no hussy like April. She's a good person, not without her complications, a steadying influence even as she seems to waver between her attraction to both Earl and Tully.

"Tully" is a realistic movie about realistic people. In this day and age, that qualifies as its own kind of special effect.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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