2011, Adam Sandler, Charlize Theron, comedy, desperate, Diablo Cody, drama, Elizabeth Reaser, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, film review, Funny People, ghost writer, independant film, instability, Jason Reitman, Jennifer's Body, jim carrey, Juno, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Punch Drunk Love, teen fiction, The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson, Young Adult
Written by: Diablo Cody
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a mess. She ghost writes a shitty teen fiction series that is not longer popular for which she gets no recognition at all, she has a pretty severe drinking problem, she’s not as young as she wants to be and nobody seems to find her problems as urgent as she does. When she receives an email announcing that her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) has just had a child, she devises a half-cooked plan to visit her hometown and win him back, despite the fact that he is quite happily married. This is Jason Reitman’s Young Adult.
Theron is very good as Mavis, in fact she is better than the character deserves and provides more emotional complexity in this role than is ever put to use in the film. Patton Oswalt, the enormously talented stand-up comedian and nerd-culture guru gives a performance that is easily the highlight of Young Adult. When comedians deliver legitimately great performances in films, it often has to do more with casting than talent (eg. Adam Sandler in Funny People, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love) but as the former high school nerd turned Mavis’ temporary moral support Matt, Oswalt is properly compelling and acute.
Now, Jason Reitman is a very good director and this film has more going on visually than perhaps it seems. Structurally, the film is almost entirely functional, and much less stylish than Reitman’s other films. Intercut here and there throughout the film, however, are highly stylized, top-down shots, reminiscent of those that litter Wes Anderson’s films. Anderson’s films are full of weirdos with bizarre habits whose self-destructive qualities are presented more as goofball quirks than as damaging, real-life problems. Anderson’s methodical, artificial top-down presentation of ritual is emotionally void and it eases the blow of would-be traumatic implications of his characters’ behaviour. Reitman is calling Anderson out on this by juxtaposing his Anderson-esque shots of Mavis’ massages and manicures with an otherwise very realistic portrait of a person suffering under her own self-destructive tendencies. I think the point is that a lot of American film about twenty- and thirty-somethings tend to be too forgiving, and Reitman is attempting to look head-on at the damaging trends in middle-class American life. Of course this all falls down around him because he is working from a script by Diablo Cody, and has done so in the past, and by association Reitman is as guilty as Anderson or any other American somewhat-indie filmmaker for making patronizing or simplistic films. In the past Diablo Cody has, with the much-admired (by some) Juno and the much-loathed (by all) Jennifer’s Body, dusted over weak characterization by bloating her scripts with twee slang that amounts to little more than distraction. For better or for worse, with Young Adult Cody has forgone the garbled dialogue in favour of characters that speak like human beings. Well, kudos for that. However, in the absence of Cody’s trademark garbage, the weakness of her writing has nowhere to hide. The characters in Young Adult aren’t thin, and indeed Mavis’ crumbling grip on her own life develops rather organically, but the problem is that she is entirely uninteresting. Mavis is surely not a likeable character and indeed she is not even unlikeable, so nothing she does is interesting. From the first moments it is clear that Mavis is going to be unstable, take a turn for desperation, learn a small lesson and end up slightly better off than she was, so then there is no point to follow this through to the end. You see, this movie is called Young Adult and that title (secretly) refers to Mavis as much as it refers to her profession… get it?
Young Adult is certainly the most grown-up film from Diablo Cody, and her pointless script is some-what salvaged by such excellent performances from Theron and Oswalt. There is only so far that strong acting will go, however, and ultimately Reitman and Cody have produced between them a film that is disingenuous, bland and easily forgotten.