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(2002) ** 1/2 G
102 min. Small Planet. Director: Hilary Birmingham. Cast: Anson Mount, Julianne Nicholson, Glenn Fitzgerald, Catherine Kellner, Bob Burrus.

The long-struggling independent film Tully—once called The Truth About Tully after the O. Henry winning short story which inspired it—gently rolls over the audience like wind on crops, but what starts out refreshing soon becomes a tad tiresome and may, in fact, leave some viewers chilly. Drawing overenthusiastic comparisons to 2000's superior small-town domestic photoplay You Can Count on Me, Tully's heartland melodrama feigns more ambition (or adeptness) than it demonstrates.

First, the good news. Screenwriter Matt Drake and director Hilary Birmingham have taken Tom McNeal's story and mined it of all its dialogue, adding plenty of their own. Though the dialogue can run to the heavy-handed in spots, much of it is better than average and some of it truly crackles. The story depicts the title character's efforts to preserve his economically and emotionally threatened farmland home (including father Tully, Sr. and brother Earl) and choice to continue his sexual pursuits or pursue a romantic one; as such, Drake and Birmingham offer their own brand of poky intrigue with a promise of third-act detonations. The cast acquits itself admirably, with Anson Mount's magnetic Tully and Julianne Nicholson's fetching Ella cultivating a will-they-or-won't-they yield; meanwhile, father Bob Burrus and son Glenn Fitzgerald (Series 7: The Contenders) credibly frame the uneasy hero within their rough edges.

So what's not to like? Abandoning the original story's slow-burning seasonal structure in favor of a rather incredibly brief time span, Drake and Birmingham give each individual acting-seminar-ready scene more than enough room to breathe, but fail to satisfactorily establish the scope and sweep of time which would make the tale resonate. As a result, the film's simplistic essence is laid bare as a triptych of obvious questions with predictable answers: will swinging-single Tully decide to settle down? Will brother Earl find peace and a place for himself? Will Tully, Sr. redeem himself for years of remoteness, deceit, and uncertainty? In realizing this, the audience's biggest surprise must be the narrative passivity of the female lead—despite Nicholson's feisty presence—in this celebrated film from a female director.

Tully hardly offends, with John Foster's admirable Nebraskan photography and frequently endearing characters, but it sadly adds up to less than the sum of its machine parts.

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