Monday, January 16, 2012

"Young Adult"

Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, and Patrick Wilson - Rated R

The Kurgan is starting to forgive Diablo Cody for "homeskillet."

Diablo Cody is a polarizing figure in the screenwriting world.  Some loved the quirky dialogue of Juno while others (me, for instance) were completely annoyed by phrases like “home skillet” and “honest to blog.”  Her next effort, Jennifer’s Body, was an enjoyable, though less successful, attempt at comedy/horror.  With Young Adult, it appears that Cody has matured into a screenwriter who can show off through characters and situations rather than one-off phrases that will become annoying before the film is out on video. 
Young Adult shows the maturation of a screenwriter and that is fitting since it is also about the maturation of its main character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron).  Mavis, the ghostwriter of a once-popular series of young adult novels, is in a funk.  Recently divorced, Mavis spends her days drinking, playing videogames, and occasionally eavesdropping on tweens for writing material.  When she finds out her high school sweetheart has just become a father, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown to break up his marriage and win him back. 
The plot of Young Adult alone makes it a difficult movie.  It’s hard to root for a character whose sole goal in the film is to break up a happily married couple.  Mavis can be funny and it’s even understandable why some characters would be friends with her and give her a break, but essentially she is a selfish, despicable person who only interacts with others when she has something to gain from it.  The film works, however, because it is not a dark character study of Mavis.  Young Adult is all about her, sure, but it’s not so serious that it becomes depressing to watch her act so badly.  While the film isn’t an all out comedy, it certainly doesn’t qualify as a straight up drama, either.
The comedic side of Young Adult is its saving grace, but the humor only works if you’re okay with a laughs with a mean edge.  Mavis is funny, but at the expense of everyone around her.  But just because she’s mean that doesn’t mean she isn’t right and/or funny at times.  Part of the appeal of Young Adult is the question, what is happiness?  Is it having a decent job and a family in suburbia, eating at franchise restaurants and drinking domestic beer?  Mavis is definitely against that possibility because she is of the city and everything is better there because everyone is above these lame, middle-class dreams.  It’s her constant condemnation of all things small town that may rub people the wrong way.  But once you realize that she is much more miserable than any of the “simpletons” around her, it is easy to laugh at some of her awkward and mean interactions.
The best of these interactions are with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who was left disfigured after a hate crime.  Matt forms an unlikely friendship with Mavis and their conversations form the backbone of the film as it is only with Matt that Mavis drops her guard at all.  It also helps that Patton Oswalt holds his own against the immensely talented Theron.  Theron’s performance carries the film, but it is Oswalt that gives the film its much needed heart. 
Young Adult also works as a lost soul film, which seems to be director Jason Reitman’s area of expertise after Juno and Up in the Air.  The problem, once again, is that Mavis is not as likeable as the characters of those other films, but that makes Young Adult stand out.  As for Reitman, he is an able filmmaker who always gets great performances from his actors, but his style is insignificant for the most part.  The only visual elements of the film that show the director’s hand are a series of close up montages of Mavis getting ready for the evening.  They don’t really add anything to the film.  It simply doesn’t make sense to have a close up montage of Theron getting a pedicure.  More importantly, these moments are not aesthetically interesting, either.  In fact, they feel downright lifted from Edgar Wright films. 
Another element that is unnecessary in Young Adult is the way the theme of the film is handled.  Based on the title alone, you can pick up on the idea that this is a film about how some people don’t mature mentally into adulthood.  Mavis’s actions and words show this to good effect.  But Diablo Cody didn’t have enough faith in the audience because she has characters flat out say the theme to Mavis.  Not a major problem, but it’s never good to insult your audience’s intelligence.
Montages and overstatement of theme are small problems, though.  Young Adult, if witnessed in the right mindset, is a funny, sad, and ultimately rewarding experience.  It’s not getting the attention most people expected from a Reitman/Cody team-up this awards season, but many should find it to be just as good as, if not better, than Juno or Up in the Air.  I know I did.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, the ending.  I am not sure if I love it or hate it.  On one hand, it's kind of refreshing to see a static character.  Mavis's delusions were exposed and she got naked figuratively and literally with Matt.  So lesson learned, right?  No, instead she gets a pep talk from a woman who still wants to be part of her high school clique and she ends up convinced that she is right and everyone else is wrong.  The scene plays out almost like a hallucination.  Perhaps that's the point, but there is no definitive evidence that Mavis is dreaming or making this stuff up herself.  Maybe another viewing is warranted.  It's hard to swallow that this character is truly that lost and it leaves the film with an overly bitter conclusion.  I'm not saying that she should embrace the lifestyle she had been mocking the whole time, but at least have her accept that some people can be happy in small towns and others can be happy in cities.

Speaking of small towns and cities, as a small town man I connected more with that aspect of the film.  Part of me got angry with Mavis's treatment of small town folk, but part of me identified with her.  It's hard not to see the more interesting places in the world and not feel a little envious at times.  But I don't feel that the film is a condemnation of small town lifestyles.  It's just another aspect of her that can potentially cause viewers to hate her.

I loved the Mos Eisley joke.  "Most Easily?"

I didn't mention Patrick Wilson in the main review.  This isn't because he does a bad job.  It's just that he's done this before.  Wilson seems like the go-to actor for "Midwest family man." 

I dug the J. K. Simmons voiceover cameo.  After True Grit, this makes two uncredited voicework jobs.  It's a good job for him.  He has a humorous and distinct voice.

Of course, Cody couldn't resist some witty phrases and names.  It's not in-your-face, though.  And I actually though "KenTacoHut" was funny.

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