Young AdultReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/10/11 08:20:47
There are many flaws that are repeatedly deployed in mainstream Hollywood films these days--pointless remakes, unnecessary deployment of the miracle of 3D in films that don't necessarily require it, the continued employment of Katherine Heigl--but one of the most frustrating is their insistence that, with few exceptions, all of their central characters have to be sympathetic and likable, presumably so that there is no risk that audiences will ever be made to feel even slightly uncomfortable with what they are watching at any given time. Hell, even a character like Hannibal Lecter--who was so fascinating precisely because he was a monster who was cheerfully unapologetic about who he was and what he did--eventually had his depravities explored and explained at length and when that happened, he went from being extraordinary to extra-ordinary and became far less interesting as a result. "Young Adult" bucks that tide by not only presenting audiences with one of the most monstrously unpleasant central characters to come along in a long time but by asking them to empathize with her without trying to make her more sympathetic either by offering mitigating circumstances for her bad behavior or an inexplicable last-minute personality change. This result is a risky, high-wire act of a film that is as discomfiting as can be and is all the funnier and sadder because of it.Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, the kind of person who peaked emotionally in high school and has spent her subsequent years in a state of perpetual adolescence. Unfortunately for virtually anyone who crosses her path, she was apparently a bit of a monster as a teenager--vain, self-absorbed and fully convinced that being pretty and popular gives her a license to get whatever it is that she wants and make life hell for anyone who gets in her way--and, thanks to the modicum of celebrity that she has attained for herself as the ghost writer of a series of "Sweet Valley High"-esque young adult novels, she has only become more unpleasant with the passage of time. Alas, the books are no longer very popular--if they are to be found at all in the few bookstores that remain, they are weighing down the remainders shelf up front--and she spends her days swilling booze and diet Coke on the sofa while watching reality television and ignoring her yappy little dog. She is finally jolted out of her state of ennui when she receives word that her high-school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has just had his first child with wife Beth (Elisabeth Reaser), another former classmate. Where most people would just see a simple announcement of a joyous event from an old acquaintance, Mavis sees a desperate cry for help from someone praying to help rescue him from the turgid monotony that his life has become and she immediately jumps into her car to head back to the small Minnesota hometown that she hasn't visited for years with the plan to take him away from all that drudgery so that they, especially she, can live happily ever after.
When she arrives and is reunited with Buddy, it turns out that he doesn't really need any rescuing after all--he loves his wife, he loves his child and is perfectly happy with his small-town existence. Naturally, Mavis cannot phantom the notion that Buddy would not want to drop his entire life in an instant to spend the rest of his time basking in her glory and is especially resentfully that Beth, one of the lowlier types that she never gave the time of day to back in school, has laid claim to what she fully believes is hers for the taking. This inspires a series of escalating events in which she tries to get Buddy back that result in one grimly humiliating situation after another. Along the way, Mavis also runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate who still bears the scars, both physical and emotional, of their high school years but even he has managed to put the past behind him in some way and is alternately amused and horrified to discover that Mavis, who was too far above him to even acknowledge his existence in school, has now become even more pathetic than him, though there is a small part of him that is still amazed that the former teen queen--even one so far removed from her crown--is willing to spend any amount time with him at all.
"Young Adult" was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, whose previous collaboration, a little thing called "Juno," was a critical and commercial smash that won Cody an Oscar. Needless to say, the two films couldn't be more dissimilar on the surface--"Juno" was sweet and charming and quirky throughout while "Young Adult" is cold, caustic and dark in tone--but as much as I admired "Juno," I have a sneaking suspicion that I like "Young Adult" even more. Cody's screenplay is more complex and daring this time around--veering from uncomfortable comedy to even more discomforting drama at a moment's notice--and is more concerned with mining and exploring the complications of Mavis' character than in trying to coin new catchphrases (as was the problem with Cody's interim screenplay for the obnoxious "Jennifer's Body"). She also has enough confidence in the material to avoid the temptation to give everything a pat resolution or to make Mavis somehow sympathetic despite her bad decisions. Towards the end, for example, Mavis blurts out one possible explanation for her horrible behavior and while an ordinary movie would have zeroed in on that as a potential out from the darkness, Cody keeps things ambiguous enough so that we aren't sure as to whether it is the truth or just another story from Mavis' overheated and melodramatic imagination. As for Reitman, he does an excellent job of handling the tricky tonal shifts and keeps the material from devolving into cruelty or condescension as it might have in lesser hands. Together, they have come up with a great film that conclusively proves that Cody is no one-trick pony and that Reitman is one of the canniest and intelligent filmmakers of any age working today.
As for the people in front of the camera, they more than hold up their end of the bargain as well, starting with Charlize Theron in what is by far the best and most inventive performance of her entire career--yes, even better than her overrated turn in "Monster." Although she has shown some good comedic chops in the past (such as serving as the sole bright spots in the otherwise underwhelming Woody Allen films "Celebrity" and "Curse of the Jade Scorpion"), she has spent most of the last decade or so working almost exclusively on overly dramatic material with nary a laugh, such as the aforementioned "Monster," "North Country," "The Road" and "Hancock" (and while I am aware that the latter title was meant to be funny, you still couldn't prove it by me), and has left the lighter stuff aside other than an amusing arc on "Arrested Development." She is a brilliant choice for the role of Mavis because she commits to the part as fiercely as anything she has ever done before while getting a chance to be both funny and serious in ways that never feel forced or overly written--the priceless scene in which her mother offhandedly mentions that Buddy's baby is beautiful and she cooly responds "Have you seen it up close?" might have seemed sitcommy in other hands but she makes into a moment that is both real and very funny. As the old classmate who observes her with incredulity and, despite her former cruelness towards him, an unexpected amount of sympathy, comedian Patton Oswalt is just as impressive and this performance, along with his work as the voice of Remy in "Ratatouille" and as the star of the little-seen "Big Fan" (an indie comedy-drama about delusion almost as lacerating as "Young Adult"), proves that if he ever wants to give up his day job and go into acting full-time, he more than has the stuff to make a go of it. The supporting cast is richly entertaining as well and Reitman, one of the more democratic filmmakers around today, is generous in giving them all a moment or two to shine."Young Adult" is a wonderful film but there is always the danger that audiences simply won't want to spend 90-odd minutes in the company of a person so toxic that if you were stuck behind her in line at a coffee shop, you would both hightail it out of there and give up coffee for good right on the spot to lessen the chances of ever running into her again, especially during the holiday season when people are supposed to be feeling peace and love towards towards everything and when any other feelings of a darker nature are frowned upon. It is true that those hoping for nothing more than silly escapism, especially those hoping for something along the same cheerful lines as "Juno," may come away from it feeling somewhat disturbed and disappointed by the experience. If you think you are that kind of person, all I can do is tell you that there are plenty of other entertainment options of a more decidedly frivolous nature out there right now and that perhaps one of them might be more up your alley. For everyone else, "Young Adult" is a real keeper--the kind of film where you spend the first half wondering how it possibly pull off everything that it is promising to do and the second half amazed as it does exactly that.
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