Friday, December 16, 2011
"Young Adult" (opening December 16 in select San Diego area theaters) reteams director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody after their successful collaboration on "Juno."
In some ways, "Young Adult" is the antithesis of "Juno." In "Juno," Ellen Page played a very mature teenager who got along well with her supportive parents and when faced with tough decisions makes some smart choices. In "Young Adult," Charlize Theron plays a very immature adult who has shaky family ties and who makes a series of very bad choices.
Stylistically too the films offer an interesting contrast. "Juno" was a smart teen comedy with crisp, snappy dialogue (some critics complained its dialogue was too sharply written to come out of the mouths of teens). It was like a sophisticated sitcom that zinged along with humor and genuine emotion. Plus you liked the characters and even if they were flawed, you came to understand them. "Young Adult," on the other hand, is a darkly hued comedy about a main character who is rather unappealing. The dialogue doesn't have a comic crispness to it but rather a slow burn comic bite.
This contrast is interesting because it suggests that Reitman and Cody don't want to merely try to repeat their previous success but want to try and push themselves in new directions. The results are impressive. "Young Adult" is not as precisely crafted and satisfying as "Juno" (which was on my top ten that year) but it is a compelling portrait of someone who seems unable to grow up and view the world from a mature perspective.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a writer of a once popular young adult novel series who heads back to her small Minnesota town for a visit. Mavis had been the popular high school beauty and the one people expected big things from. While she's had moderate career success, her personal life seems in shambles. She's gone through a divorce, isn't close to any family, and has decided that she will reconnect with her ex-high school flame even though by all accounts he's a happily married man and new dad.
"Young Adult" takes us on a darkly comic downward spiral as Mavis pursues Buddy (Patrick Wilson), her high school sweetheart. Mavis' ability to ignore reality and see the world from her own warped perspective is perversely impressive. Even when Matt (an excellent Patton Oswalt), one of those invisible kids from her high school, tells her flat out that Buddy is happily married, Mavis cannot see the truth. Mavis' mental state sometimes borders on psychosis and makes her an intriguing and unusual protagonist. She's not readily likable and it's unusual for films to focus on complex and difficult characters like that. Retiman, Cody, and Theron, however, provide insights into her and don't make her unsympathetic. We get to see what makes her tick and how hard it may be to get her to change. But that's a realistic take on the character. The filmmakers give Mavis a very rude awakening at the end, but not even that may be enough to provoke a change. A scene at the end suggests that perhaps she has learned nothing.
Cody once again reveals herself as a talented writer with a flair for sharp humor and a keen sense of originality. In a typical Hollywood movie, Mavis would have an awakening, and leave us assured that she is on a better course in life. She would be cute too. But Cody is unflinching in her portrait of Mavis. She lets us see all the calculation and attempted manipulation that goes into Mavis' plan to extract Buddy from his happy marriage and new daddyhood. She is a wholly selfish person with no awareness in the least for anyone around her. At one point she seems to treat Matt with kindness but even that turns out to just her using him for her own selfish needs. Cody is to be commended for creating a complex female character rather than just a positive and comforting (and conforming) one.
Reitman manages an effective blend of comedy and drama. The laughs definitely come from a dark and sometimes uncomfortable place. We laugh because there is such a disconnect between the real world and Mavis' perception of it. Reitman also does a fine job of keeping both those perspectives vivid. He lets us see quite clearly what the real world is and yet we also see exactly how Mavis is interpreting that world.
"Young Adult" (rated R for language and some sexual content) will have a harder time finding an audience than the decidedly more upbeat and easy to like "Juno." But it reveals a growing maturity on the part of Reitman and Cody, and a willingness on their part to try something different. It also reminds us that Charlize Theron can act when given a part that challenges her.
Companion viewing: "Juno," "Big Fan," "Up In the Air"