Young Adult *** ½
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Diablo Cody.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Mavis Gary), Patton Oswalt (Matt Freehauf), Patrick Wilson (Buddy Slade), Elizabeth Reaser (Beth Slade), Collette Wolfe (Sandra Freehauf), Jill Eikenberry (Hedda Gary), Richard Bekins (David Gary), Mary Beth Hurt (Jan).
Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s first collaboration was the wonderful, lightning quick comedy Juno (2007), which is one of those films that everyone loved until they realized that everyone loved it. They have re-teamed now for Young Adult, but if you are expecting the same kind of lightning quick, dialogue heavy comedy, than you may well end up disappointed. Young Adult is a more mature, if slightly less satisfying film, than Juno was. It centers on Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) who was the popular bitch in high school who you either loved or hated from afar. 20 years on, she is still a bitch – and the daring thing about Young Adult is that by the end of the film, she hasn’t learned anything. I am tired of movies where people learn a life lesson and become better people in the course of two hours. If one thing links Juno and Young Adult together it is that they don’t share this illusion. In Juno, Jason Bateman’s character flies in the face of the typical Apatow man we have seen on screens in the past few years – he’s immature jerk at the beginning of the movie, and despite the love of a good, gorgeous woman (which is all they need to change in an Apatow film), he remains one right up until the end (the most devastating line in Juno is when Bateman tells Garner he’s moving into a loft and she responds by saying “Aren’t you the cool guy”).
For Mavis, high school was the best time in her life, and she still lives like a teenager 20 years on. She moved out of her “hick” town of Mercury, Minnesota, for life in the “big city” of Minneapolis. She makes a living being a ghost writer for a once popular teen series about Waverly Prep School, which allows her to relive her high school life again and again. She’s now working on the last novel in the series. Mavis has constructed a view of herself as sophisticated, a person who has outgrown her humble roots, but in reality she is depressed and has descended into alcoholism. She gets the idea into her head that she belongs with her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), even though he is now married and just became a father for the first time. So, she hits the road to Mercury to win back “the love of her life”.
Strangely, I thought of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia while watching Young Adult, even though the two films couldn’t possibly be more different on their surfaces. What they do share however is an outlook of depression as massive self involvement. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia cannot see outside of herself to whatever is going on around her, and Mavis is the same way. It’s clear to everyone that Buddy is happily married and adores his new daughter, but Mavis doesn’t see it that way. For her, he is miserable – stuck in a dead end job, in a dead end town, with a boring wife and an ugly daughter. She cannot possibly conceive that Buddy would not want to be with her anymore – that he has in fact grown up, while she remains stuck as a teenager.
This is a brave performance by Theron who never tries to make Mavis into a sympathetic character. She is, in short, a bitch and Theron never tries to soften her edges. She is cruel and self obsessed. Theron dives head long into the role, and delivers perhaps the best performance of her career (yes, better than she was under all that makeup in Monster). She is also funny – cruelly so – and the movie is funny in that painful/awkward way that the best of TV’s The Office is. Patton Oswalt is equally great as Matt Freehauf, who is, in his own way, also trapped in his high school self. In senior year, he was taken out to the woods and beaten by some football jocks, for apparently being gay, even though he isn’t which has left him permanently disabled. Even though it comes out that Mavis always called him a “theatre fag” behind his back, it never even dawns on her that she is partly responsible for what happened to him. She hangs out with Matt often while back in Mercury – because he still seems to idolize her like people did in high school, and she needs a drinking buddy. Matt is a sad, pathetic little man, but he does invoke our sympathy, even as he lets Mavis use him. These two people are damaged beyond repair, and they need each other. Matt’s sister (Colette Wolff), who makes a big impression in just a few short scenes (especially her final one), is even sadder, trapped as ever in Mavis’ outward superiority, without ever realizing how damaged she is.
Young Adult surprised me. I expected another Juno-like comedy, as even in her follow up film (Jennifer’s Body), Cody seemed to stick with the same basic writing style of witty one liners piled on top of each other. And yet, Young Adult is a different film – a much darker comedy, about damaged people who will remain damaged. Reitman’s direction is more surefooted than it was in Juno, and the performances are universally excellent. Juno was the feel good comedy of 2007. Young Adult may well be the feel bad comedy of 2011.