Blistering black comedy celebrates stunted development and spectacularly bad ideas
Directed by Jason Reitman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt
The last time director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody teamed up, it was for a little film called Juno. Four years later they’re back together for another drama-laced comedy, Young Adult. Perhaps the two have grown older and wiser. Perhaps times have changed. But the snarky, impossibly well-spoken wit of Juno has dried up, replaced by the cynical comedy of discomfort.
Charlize Theron is the duo’s muse this time around, tackling the role of Mavis Gary. And what a role it is. Mavis is a successful writer of young-adult fiction. She’s penned dozens of books in a long-running series about popular girls at a fancy prep school. But success doesn’t seem to agree much with Mavis. She lives in a nice apartment in Minneapolis, wears fancy clothes and totes around one of those purse-sized dogs that only looks proper dangling from the arm of Paris Hilton or a very old homosexual man. (Sorry, Mickey Rourke, it just ain’t workin’ for ya.) She also drinks to excess, frequently wakes up in her clothes from last night and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world. Faced with a deadline on the final book in her series, Mavis goes looking for the ultimate distraction.
Out of the blue, she decides it’s time to hunt down her “soul mate,” the hunky high school quarterback she left back in small-town Minnesota. Tossing her dog and an overnight bag into her Mini Cooper, Mavis plows her way back to the podunk little burg she gave her middle finger to back in the early ’90s. The only hitch in Mavis’ plan is that Buddy (an endearingly oblivious Patrick Wilson from Watchmen) is married now. And his wife just had a baby. Interestingly enough, Mavis doesn’t see this as a major impediment. She and Buddy are meant to be together. And clearly, she’s such a catch that any man would happily dump his wife for her—the golden girl cheerleader-turned-author.
Needless to say, things don’t work out quite the way she expected. So Mavis spends most of her homecoming torturing Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former high school nerd with a longtime crush on her. That and avoiding her overbearing parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins).
Theron really gives her all here. Mavis Gary is among the more unsympathetic characters in recent cinema. You can put her alongside Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad and Oswalt in his dark comedy Big Fan. Drunk, delusional, narcissistic and fanatically heedless of other people’s opinions, she’s a real piece of work. Theron—as she did in 2003’s Academy Award-winning Monster—sheds all trace of vanity to play the role. Mavis is beautiful on the outside but ugly as all get-out on the inside. The one thing that saves the main character from Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa territory is that Cody and Reitman know why she’s such a broken individual. Throughout the film, we’re witness to the deep loneliness and self-doubt that’s driving Mavis’ foolish quest. With her success fading right before our eyes—her life self-immolating and her future prospects rocky at best—Mavis becomes the poster child for people who peaked in high school. We hate her, sure. But we feel sorry for her at the same time.
Balancing out Theron’s sour humanity is Oswalt. Working as her perfect foil, Oswalt’s Matt is a lumpen ball of acquiescence. Unlike Mavis, Matt’s life has been a living hell of unpopularity, hate crimes, physical handicaps, poverty and rejection. And yet, he’s quietly accepting of it all. Nice guy that he is, Matt’s still willing to help Mavis out of the impossible emotional trap she’s set for herself. For her part, she treats him even more deplorably than she did in high school. And yet they become kindred spirits somehow. Theron and Oswalt make for an intriguing odd couple, and it is their friction-filled banter that fuels Young Adult.
As backdrop to all this, the film perfectly captures the feeling of going back to one’s roots and discovering the neighborhoods in which you grew up are now filled with a generic sea of Chili’s and Office Depots. This is no sunny, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion trip down memory lane. Here, nostalgia is a bitter, chalky pill: from the crummy mix tapes we used to play to the junky little bars we used to hang out in to the people we once called friends. It all just ... sucks now.
Yeah, Young Adult is a mighty cynical film. It is, on occasion though, bleakly, blisteringly funny. Reitman has matured into a superb filmmaker. (Thanks, particularly, to 2009’s Up In The Air.) Cody, meanwhile, no longer feels the need to impress with her too-perfect, pop-culture-saturated dialogue. This is the comedy of discomfort, and discomfort is born from awkward silence—of which Young Adult has plenty. Don’t go expecting any warm and fuzzy moral here, folks. I guarantee, you’ll cringe as much as you’ll laugh.
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