Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Young Adult

Grade: 76 (B+)

For a multiple Academy Award-nominee, Jason Reitman lives in a long shadow: his father, Ivan Reitman, directed one of the funniest movies ever made (Ghostbusters), and his influences shine through so strongly through his films that it’s easy to see that he isn’t quite as gifted as Alexander Payne or the Andersons Paul and Wes; he’s a more middlebrow version of them. Reitman’s reliably solid films coast along amiably as satires until they inevitably devolve into sentimentality as they reach their emotional climaxes. A change needs to come to Nick Naylor, the tobacco lobbyist of Thank You for Smoking, or Ryan Bingham, the aloof protagonist of Up in the Air. Mavis Gary of Young Adult is not one of those people: she is a terrible person at the start, and a terrible person at the end, which makes for a more refreshing experience.

Yes, Mavis (Charlize Theron) isn’t exactly the warmest of protagonists: she’s a depressed, self-pitying, alcoholic divorcee who spends most of her time, when she’s not ghostwriting a popular young adult series, sitting around, drinking, hooking up, or watching reality television. She’s forever stuck in sneering adolescence. When Mavis learns that her former sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), is married and has had his first child, she takes it upon herself to head home from Minneapolis liberate him from his “chains”. Her only companion is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a crippled, nerdy former classmate she meets in a bar, who serves as a drinking buddy and sounding board.

The film is Reitman’s reunion with his Juno collaborator, screenwriter Diablo Cody. But where Juno was a love-her-or-hate-her proposition (I hated her), Mavis is a love-to-hate-her proposition. Cody mostly dials back the obnoxious quirkiness of her previous work to more human levels; the teenaged phrasings are only used mockingly by Mavis. Theron abandons any attempt to ingratiate herself to the audience and dives full force into a spiteful, near-irredeemable jerk who only thinks of herself and is rarely interested in how her actions affect others. She’s there to save her old flame, never mind that he’s happy where he is. Oswalt is similarly terrific as a man scarred, literally and metaphorically, by the cruelty he suffered in high school. He enjoys Mavis’ company, to some extent, though he also enjoys watching her plans blow up in her face. Mavis is rarely, if ever, nice to him, and Oswalt’s rebuke towards Mavis is one of the most satisfying moments in the film.

Mavis isn’t a complete monster, however; Reitman and Cody’s attempts to humanize the character are far more successful than in the director’s past outings. She’s never likable, but by the end we want her to get a little better. What’s astonishing is that she doesn’t: her hateful worldview is reinforced in a deeply sad scene near the end. The film unfortunately ends abruptly afterwards, and Reitman still can’t quite overcome his influences, but Young Adult is his strongest outing yet.

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