Young Adult (United States, 2011)December 07, 2011
Diablo Cody has a distinctive voice. You can hear it in Juno. You can hear it in Jennifer's Body. You can hear it in United States of Tara. And you can hear it in Young Adult. After a while, however, the uniqueness of what Cody has to say and how she says it can grow tiresome. Juno was cheeky, edgy, and fun. It mixed humor and drama, fantasy and reality, love and sex in just the right mix. It was also the sole unqualified success on Cody's still-growing resume. There was something about Juno that made it appealing. Some have wondered whether director Jason Reitman deserved more credit than he was given. Perhaps to test the theory, Cody and Reitman have re-teamed (without Ellen Page) for Young Adult. On the surface, it looks and sounds a lot like Juno. But there's a big difference in tone. Juno showed affection for its characters, and the audience shared that love affair. In Young Adult, the attitude toward the protagonist is thinly-veiled contempt. For most of the movie, Cody and Reitman jape at her until, in the last 20 minutes or so, they attempt to turn her into an object of sympathy. It doesn't work and, on balance, neither does Young Adult.
It's tricky business to make a movie in which the lead character is detestable. It can be done, but it requires a deftness of touch not on display here. Reitman and Cody are trying for a black comedy, but the screenplay's numerous "pithy" lines aren't all that funny and its "insights" are rather obvious, especially the "revelation" of how lives shift in the reality of post-high school life. Geeks rule the world. Jocks often end up working minimum wage jobs. And popular girls get stuck with a couple of kids before they turn 25. For a reminder of this, one would do better to listen to Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" than sit through Young Adult. At the very least, it would save about 90 minutes.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the kind of character who's easy to despise. For most of the movie, it's unclear how the filmmakers feel about her. Is this Cody's opportunity to take revenge on all the popular girls who looked down their noses at her in high school, or is she attempting to humanize the caricature? By the end of the film, we sense that she and Reitman feel sympathy - or at least pity - for Mavis, but it doesn't translate to the audience. Any hope of our caring about what happens to Mavis is long gone. And she really hasn't changed. She's the same psychotic, delusional, alcoholic bitch at minute 95 that she is at minute 1. Spending that much time in her company is more of a chore than slogging through the slime of sex addiction with Michael Fassbender in Shame.
Mavis is 37 and divorced when she returns to her backwater Minnesota hometown from the big city of Minneapolis for one reason: to recapture the love of her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). For some reason, 20 years and one failed marriage later, Mavis has decided that Buddy is her soul mate. Long after having shaken the small-town Midwestern dust from her shoes, she holds her nose and comes back. She's had some success while away as the ghost writer of a series of "young adult" books and as the author of teleplays for a once-popular TV program. Now, however, she's avoiding writing the final episode of the show and struggling with writer's block. Her refuge is the alcoholic haze in which she almost constantly exists. She's shallow, petty, and self-absorbed - otherwise she'd realize that Buddy, who is happily married to Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and is a new parent, has no interest in reviving anything with Mavis. While in town, she enlists an old high school classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), as her drinking buddy and confidante. Matt, who was disabled as a result of an ugly run-in with high school bullies around 1990, is as anxious to forget about his teenage years as Mavis is to re-live them.
One of the biggest mistakes made by the filmmakers may be to center Young Adult on Mavis, who would be endurable in small doses. It's hard to fault Charlize Theron's performance because it takes talent and dedication to make this kind of impression, even if it's strongly negative. She's excellent at crafting a character we simply cannot stand, and even manages to display the tragic aspect of Mavis' life as we peer through the cracks (which are blown wide open in the final 15 minutes). The far more interesting and sympathetic character is Matt, but Cody doesn't understand men as well as women and it shows in her writing. Oswalt has played non-comedic roles before (he was especially good in Big Fan) and his work here is strong. Patrick Wilson's Buddy lacks personality, which is the point. "Boring" and "settled" define the character and Wilson delivers those traits.
One wonders whether Cody's screenplay says more about her than it does about the characters. Any distinctive voice that Reitman may possess has been dampened in service of the script. (See Up in the Air for a better sense of the director.) The lead character here is cut from a similar cloth to the one played by Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher and the result is the same: artificial hijinks in service of an unlikeable, over-the-top protagonist. Whatever magic resulted from the teaming of Cody and Reitman in Juno has not been recaptured here. In fact, at times it seems they're aware something is missing and are straining to find it. There are isolated instances when Young Adult strikes the right comedic and dramatic notes, making a cogent point or delivering a solid laugh, but it's mostly a string of out-of-tune chords.
Young Adult (United States, 2011)
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures