Farm Aid

The homespun simplicity of Tully makes one pine for more complicated days

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The sweeping Midwestern plains and vast, baby-blue skies of Tully are sheer poetry, but the rest of the movie's more like listening to someone reading a really trite greeting card ... very, very slowly. This is one farmland drama where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, in more ways than one.Tully springs from a long, more-or-less proud tradition of movies about rural life that includes Places in the Heart, The River and Country. It's a sub-genre that's always been a bit more susceptible than most to a wide variety of cliches, and it takes a director with a sure hand and a clear vision to rise above them.

Tully has the look of a class act, but it embraces most of those cliches and then adds a few more to the mix, just for good measure.

We get a pair of wildly dissimilar brothers, one shy and sensitive, the other an incorrigible womanizer who, wouldn't you just know, falls for the sweet, freckle-faced girl next door. We get the boys' stern but unflaggingly noble father who's trying his best to make ends meet. We get a mean old bank just itching to slap a foreclosure notice on the family farm. And we get a bushel full of family secrets that come tumbling out at the last minute to rock everyone's world and ultimately turn one and all into better people.

All of this seems to occur in slow motion, with nothing much happening for virtually the entire first half of the movie. Then there's a rapid, clumsy escalation into a series of Big Events more in keeping with soap opera than with the small, serious drama Tully clearly wants to be. Mysterious strangers show up at the door, secrets from the past are revealed, and all of the characters are required to make tough choices that will inevitably enable them to "grow." (And yes, Adaptation fans, that noise you hear is indeed the sound of Charlie Kaufman's skin crawling.)

The film is based on a story by Tom McNeal, and takes place on a farm out in the middle of Nebraska, where young stud-muffin Tully (Anson Mount), mild-mannered brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) and gal pal Ella (Julianne Nicholson) spend their time sitting around, drinking, swimming, and talking, talking, talking. It's a wonder the farm hasn't long ago gone bust, since no one seems to ever really do any work around the place.

About the only person who seems to actually perform any sort of labor is Tully's father (Bob Burrus), who diddles and mopes while the others blabber, alerting us to his designation as the movie's official Strong Silent Type. He's also very Serious, which leads to an inevitable confrontation (and even more inevitable reconciliation) between the father and his free-wheeling, oversexed son. Tully's eventual redemption adds a whole other array of cliches to the movie's already considerable stockpile — that of the coming-of-age movie — and everything is tied together with a neatness bordering on the anal retentive, in an ending that's pure anticlimax.

Tully isn't a big, Hollywood movie, but it has the safe, formulaic feel of one. It's true that there's nothing in the film anywhere near as blatantly stupid as 99 percent of what happens in almost anything starring Steven Seagal or Martin Lawrence, but there's a reliance on narrative shortcuts and lazy character development that's inexcusable. Despite the hints of familial dysfunction, most of Tully's characters are really pretty depthless and, ultimately, unnaturally good. Frankly, everybody's way too benign and fault-free for his or her own good, and, more importantly, for the movie's own good.

Even when there isn't much happening on screen, first-time director Hillary Birmingham doesn't appear to trust herself to give the film room to breathe. Simply put, none of the characters ever seem to shut up, and most of the talk is of the stagy, heart-to-heart variety that's meant to move the story along but simply winds up reminding us how hackneyed it all is. There's an earnest but utterly routine sensibility on display here, less suited to the big screen than to cable TV, which is exactly where Tully showed up on the heels of a semi-positive reception on the festival circuit a few years back.

Despite its extreme predictability and a pace that's pure molasses, Tully isn't all bad. DP John Foster's cinematography is often lovely, the local color is credible and some of the performances are quite good, particularly from newcomer Burrus. Nicholson projects an appealing, fresh-faced charm as Tully's girlfriend, and Anson Mount manages to brood convincingly, albeit in a sort of role we've seen far too often on screen. Beyond that, though, there really isn't enough going on here to keep this corny and coy heartland drama from buying the farm.

Local HeroesAfter a long dry spell, things are finally looking up for the Bay area's local film scene.

First, the Sleep of Reason film series re-emerged with a vengeance from a hiatus that seemed like it was lasting forever, thrilling local lovers of fringe cinema with all manner of Euro and Asian exotica.

And now, lo and behold, Movies That Move is back in action.

After wowing us with a solid year or so of frenzied, virtually nonstop activity, Movies That Move slowed down to a barely visible crawl when series curator Margaret Murray signed on for the full-time gig of programming the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Well, with this year's festivals done and gone, Murray found herself with just enough free time on her hands to finally get Movies That Move moving again. Murray describes the plan behind her latest series of guerrilla film events as a sort of "roving, underground drive-in," where films will be projected onto blank walls (or screens, where available) at various sites. Audience members will be able to listen to the films' audio on their car stereos, thanks to a low-power FM transmitter obtained by Murray.

The first installment of Movies That Move's drive-in series kicks off with a very unusual presentation of Alex Cox's quintessential 1980s cult classic Repo Man, that much-loved mix of suburban angst, alienation, aliens, Emilio Estevez, televangelists and Chevy Malibus. The film will be projected in the parking lot adjacent to Sulphur Springs Park (a paved and neglected space sometimes known as the "Sulphur Springs Asphalt Wasteland"), and will benefit the campaign of City Council candidate Kelly Benjamin. Benjamin, who handpicked Repo Man for this event, will be on hand to host the evening's activities.

A moving-image montage by local video activist Stu K. will precede the screening of Repo Man. The event takes place at 7 p.m. Sat., Feb. 15, at the parking lot at 713 E. Bird Street, Tampa. Suggested donation is $5, with an additional $1 "sin tax" levied against all SUV drivers. For more information, check out Votekelly.org or call Movies That Move at 727-381-4894.

Onto Bigger, Better ThingsJust one last, quick local note: Stephen Biro, owner of multiple Best-of-the-Bay-winning Ybor City video store Video Mayem, will devote his energy to his year-old side project, a DVD line called Unearthed Films, which has taken off with such unexpected success that he no longer has time to operate his Ybor store. Rather than simply shutter up the place, though, Biro would like to see the keys to Video Mayhem passed on to someone who genuinely cares about providing Bay area cinephiles with the sort of rare and wonderful goodies they crave. If you know someone who fits that bill (and has a little bit of spare cash floating around), give Biro a call at 813-248-4666. He's eager for someone to carry on the tradition and claims he's ready to give the store away for a song.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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