Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adult: Sweet Pea with a Black Inside

Young Adult
Directed By: Jason Reitman
Written By: Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, and Collette Wolfe.
Director of Photography: Eric Steelberg, Editor: Dana E. Glauberman, Production Designer: Kevin Thompson, Original Music: Rolfe Kent
Rated: R for nasty humor from a nasty woman.

This post has been edited for a correction to a beverage the main character drinks. It is Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi.

            In her Oscar-winning role for Monster, Chalize Theron took her gorgeous and beautiful body and made herself ugly, gaining 30 pounds and wearing prosthetic teeth. Oscar loves to reward actresses who do something “daring,” meaning they are willing to look ugly for the camera while dolled up when it comes to the red carpet. But now comes Young Adult with Ms. Theron doing something actually daring. She’s often very beautiful in the film, dolled up with radiant locks of golden hair and glittering skin. But even more than Monster, Ms. Theron plays a character who is ugly on the inside: an alcoholic, devilish, and disaster of a woman with nothing much resembling a soul.

            And that’s the conceit of Young Adult, the new film from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. When these two last paired, they brought us something sweet (perhaps too sweet) with Juno, but Young Adult couldn’t be tonally more didactic. Here’s a film that is reckless in its ambition to bring us into a character that delights in the pleasures of personal vengeance and contempt for simplicity. Ms. Cody has explained in interviews that Young Adult has somewhat personal connections, but in many ways, it’s a universal film for all of us who have ever left our hometowns, and want nothing more than to go back someday and slap them all across the face.

            When we first come upon Mavis Gary, she’s sprawled out on her bed after what must be (another) heavy night of drinking. With the Karsashians playing on television, she grabs a liter of Diet Coke to recover from her hangover, as her Minneapolis apartment lies in shambles. Her day gets interesting, however, when she gets an email from her old high school boyfriend. But the email from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is not the type of news you want—it’s an email announcing the birth of his first child. With a gung-ho attitude, Mavis abandons Minneapolis to head back up state to win back the love of her life, no matter the cost.

            Mavis, however, can’t help but observe that the town of her childhood has remained a hick town with little to offer her. While she has become the closest thing to a celebrity the town has ever seen by ghost writing a set of young adult novels, everyone else has remained perfectly content in their small lives. The only person she’s able to connect with is Matt, an overweight crippled nerd whom had a locker next to Mavis throughout high school. Played with a subtle dark humor by Patton Oswalt, Matt seems to be the only person in town that also understands the absurdity of everyone else around him and Mavis.

            To say, Young Adult is a pretentious movie might sound like a negative point, but it’s the film’s most unique attitude and what makes it a fascinating movie. If Fargo, another Minnesota-set tale, was about the beauty of simplicity, Young Adult takes a large pitchfork and throws it back at that idea. As much as Ms. Cody does portray Mavis as a monster with no leash, she truly identifies with someone with who would rather rot in hell than live a clean, heavenly life. Ms. Cody is breaking into her own id and her own desires to wave a big middle finger to those from her past.

            As much as that thematic detail is interesting, I wish Young Adult had a little more narrative, and didn’t leave all of its bite for the end. Mr. Reitman captures the faces of his principles well, and lets the script’s extremely awkward exchanges feel that pain, but otherwise he’s a non-entity in this film. Ms. Cody’s narrative sort of falls into place ever so easily, and the jumps it has to take are small to say the least. Not that the film necessarily needs more obstacles, but its one of the rare films that feels too short, as if the entire film is simply about a crucial ending sequence between Mavis and Matt’s sister (Collette Wolfe), who gives a stirringly sly monologue that turns everything we thought. Young Adult seems ready with claws to tear down Mavis as a train wreck of a person, and then in one sudden move, it reminds us that we’d rather be drinking our lives into oblivion with her than living a “normal,” very boring life.

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