Dec 24, 2011

Young Adult

Written by Diablo Cody, and directed by Jason Reitman, the team behind Juno, Young Adult gets brownie points for trying to be a very dark comedy, a willful antithesis to all those fluffy, borderline offensive Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson movies about women desperate to get married that always end with the woman getting the guy. But Young Adult does not have the frenzied joie de vivre of Bridesmaids, which is also an antidote to that. This is a strangely toned film, mostly held together by the compelling performance of Charlize Theron as Mavis, an alcoholic ghostwriter of young adult novels, who lives in the big city (Minneapolis) and is obsessed with recovering Buddy, her now happily married old flame (Patrick Wilson), who is still stuck in her old town, with a new baby. On paper, everything is there for a great, sarcastic comedy about selfishness and romantic immaturity, and I give credit to all involved for pushing the material to the most uncomfortable lengths; but something doesn't quite jell. For one, the laughter dies in your throat. I guess you need a subtler hand to make it more mischievous while keeping the darkness alive (Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Fargo, or the early films of Alexander Payne come to mind). Sadly, Reitman and Cody are heavy-handed satirists, while the genre requires a light and killer touch. Reitman needs more finesse as a director to make the horrible ironies of the story resonate. And the conventionality of Cody's by-the-number plot turns completely undermines the bracing contrariness of her script. 
There is a lot of richness in the idea that a woman who writes for young adults is a young adult herself, and of the worst kind. Mavis is bitter, self-pitying, both needy and cold, a bitch on wheels, arrogant and pretty brazenly horrid. Cody employs the voiceover narration of the teen novel Mavis is ghostwriting to provide an ironic echo to what is happening in her life. This is a very clever device to make Mavis tolerable, since it shows a window to her sad fantasies of love and happiness; yet little sticks in the mind, and none of it deepens the pleasure of watching this movie. In fact, watching this movie is not a pleasurable experience. There are a few genuine laughs, mostly because Theron tears through Mavis with great gusto and insight. But Cody overly punishes Mavis for being the Alpha Bitch. You can totally imagine Mavis being a gorgeous, nasty piece of work in high school. Well, now she is 37, still gorgeous (you'd need pounds of prosthetics to make Theron look bad), and her comeuppance is here. In the end, like many other American movies, Young Adult becomes a pat moral tale. Mavis is going to learn her big lesson and both she and the audience are going to be punished for being such selfish Americans. Boo hoo.
I have no problem with an anti-heroine that makes you cringe, but I do have problems with arbitrary, artificial plot points. And there are several important ones. Mavis arrives in town and gets recognized by Matt, the local cripple (Patton Oswalt, miscast and misdirected, in my view), and they almost instantly develop a buddy relationship. I never understood why Matt was so invested in preventing Mavis from reclaiming Buddy. What's it to him? A simple inkling of motive would have made his goodness understandable. Then there is the problem with small town goodness. Except for Mavis, everybody is an angel. Buddy is a sweet and decent guy, his wife is adorable, and Matt bears little traces of hatred or resentment towards the jocks who left him a cripple, thinking he was gay. So I found Matt and Mavis' relationship unconvincing, and Oswalt too much of a teddy bear to be interesting. If someone with a bit more bite, like Zach Galifianakis, were to play this role, Matt and Mavis could have been a killer duo, and much more fun. But, instead of wallowing joyfully in the destruction someone like Mavis can unleash, Cody goes for the confessional, for punishment and atonement: yawn. The piece de resistance, a scene where Mavis exposes herself for all the town to see is ludicrous and forced. The audience can go with everything that happens until then and right after that, but Mavis' self-inflicted debasement to the entire town is a groaner. She regresses to being the petulant high school bitch of yore, but it is not believable that she, of all people, would unravel like that, even after the requisite several shots of whiskey. Why hit the audience over the head with a frying pan when you could use a light, more devastating, touch? Beats me.
There are some further moments of discomfort with Matt and a wonderful exchange with Matt's smitten sister (she's smitten with Mavis), right after the punishment scene, as well as some well observed moments about what it is to be a writer: Mavis stealing overheard conversations; one minute her face and page are blank with dread, and the next they teem with life and words. Theron is particularly good at conveying her writer's thoughts, and she is the best reason to see this movie. She makes Mavis human. Too bad that Cody and Reitman shoehorned her subversive story into a most conventional plot.

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