Mavis Gary, the anti-heroine of Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, is an impressive creation, a real piece of work. A former high school prom queen in small-town Minnesota, now the largely-uncredited author of a trashy series of teen soap novels, she is a walking petri dish of insecurity and self-loathing – a pathological hair-puller and an alcoholic most likely to be found passed out face-down in the bed of her disaster of a Minneapolis high-rise apartment, clad in sweatpants, while some cable show blares, ignored, from her tv. The film will focus on her grudging, spiteful return to her hick hometown to win back her old high school boyfriend, whose wife just gave birth to their first child.
Young Adult is the third film written by Diablo Cody, whose Juno and Jennifer’s Body (which latter I was more or less alone in liking quite a bit) cultivated a slangy, relentlessly self-aware signature style that seemed to move from embraced to mocked before Body even saw the light of day. Here, she pulls back a little, delivering a script that’s less hyperactive and more purposeful. It’s gratifying to see that Cody can work in multiple registers, but shorn of her stylistic tics, her writing both retains its fierce intelligence and reveals a sort of casual meanness that’s a bit jarring. Indeed, my main problem with Young Adult is the amount of withering nastiness and neurosis it crams into 90 minutes – this is an exhausting film, resentful and unkind, with a protagonist who seems to have been written to illustrate Cody’s thesis about destructive arrested development as comprehensively as possible.
Cody certainly works overtime to establish Mavis (Charlize Theron) as an embittered popular hot girl who peaked in high school and now – twenty years later – carries around the baggage of a persistent, existential disappointment that she dare not acknowledge. It’s not that her life is objectively bad: she “got out” of Mercury, Minnesota, and has seen some measure of success in a field most people view as glamorous. But something gnaws at her. She gets a cheerful “new baby” email from her old high school boyfriend, a genial jock named Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). She regards it with a sneer, and decides that Buddy can’t possibly be happy: babies are boring, Buddy’s wife is boring, and he must wish he had a “life” like she does in the big city. So she packs her little dog into her little Mini Cooper and takes off for Mercury, determined to rescue Buddy from his miserable small-town existence by winning him back.
This isn’t, thank God, one of those movies where a big-city hot shot reluctantly returns to her hometown and discovers that hey, everyone’s actually really nice and cool and gosh family is so much more important than the rat race. For Mavis, Mercury is filled with ghosts rather than shining examples of the good life. She runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate she barely remembers though they had adjacent lockers. She finally puts the face to the name when she remembers that Matt was the “hate crime guy,” badly beaten and crippled their senior year for being gay. He’s not gay, and never was, though that didn’t stop Mavis from referring to him as “theater fag” in high school. When they reunite she is openly, almost absurdly disdainful (no one would ever really act this way, I thought), but when to her chagrin Buddy turns out to be quite content with his wife and baby, Mavis finds Matt to be a sympathetic ear, and a great source of homemade booze.
Mavis is such a perfect storm of regressive awfulness that she eventually comes off as more or less a nutcase – something that the movie, to its credit, acknowledges. There’s not much reward in watching her: she’s more of an insightful construct than a character, meant to stand in for the worst in all of us. But I liked the film anyway; it’s funny and acidly smart, and the acting is uniformly outstanding. Theron has some beautiful moments in which she clearly reveals the “psycho prom queen bitch” Mavis used to be – her climactic meltdown is sort of a masterpiece. Patrick Wilson does his usual lovely work as a guy who started in the same place as Mavis but unlike her was able to find a measure of peace. And Patton Oswalt is heartbreaking as Mavis’s foil – a man just as miserable as she, but for opposite reasons.
This is Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Up in the Air, and he is rapidly turning into a tough-minded, unsentimental chronicler of middle-class discontent – the filmmaker Neil LaBute threatened to become before veering off in a weird direction. With Young Adult he’s made an expertly focused, spare film; a mixed bag, but a singular one.
— Eugene Novikov
|Starring:||Collette wolfe, Elizabeth Reaser, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Charlize Theron|
|Directed by:||Jason Reitman|