YOUNG ADULT Review:
- The sweet irony of YOUNG ADULT is that, even as it deals with a profoundly immature protagonist, it feels, in many ways, like the most mature movie to date from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. I loved Juno, and never understood the backlash that surrounded it. But I did worry a bit, after seeing the Cody-penned Jennifer's Body. I actually liked it a lot, but it seemed like it might be sending the divisive screenwriter down a slippery slope. Would each of her scripts become more self-conciously quirky than the last? Would her movies become so jam-packed with non-sequitar catch-phrases so as to become mere self-parody? Well, worry not. Because the script to Young Adult is fantastic - it's quirky, but in a darkly comic, painfully authentic manner. The quirk here doesn't feel invented at all - but rooted in a very stark, wonderfully cynical reality that I think a lot of people will be able to relate to. Mavis Gary - brilliantly played by Charlize Theron - is both That Girl You Know, and that little voice in all of us (well, those of us who packed up from the suburbs and moved to the big city)that says we're better than our hometown and the people we grew up with. We all try to brainwash ourselves to some extent - tell ourselves that we're special, that we have great destinies, that we're meant for big things. And Mavis Gary is here to demonstrate the flipside of that equation. That maybe the ones who settled actually got it right. Maybe there's something to be said for happy contentment versus the sort of prolonged teen angst that someone like Mavis subjects herself to. It's all there in Young Adult, and it makes for a hilarious, smart, dark, deeply authentic and lived-in movie.
Young Adult follows the aformentioned Mavis Gray as she returns to her small hometown - the fictional Mercury, Minnesota - possessed by the notion that she can somehow win back Buddy, her old high school flame. This is, of course, paying little regard to the fact that Buddy is happily married and the father of a newborn baby. But Mavis is overcome with self-delusion. She sees herself as a conquering hero who was the queen of her high school, who's since gone out to the big city (er, Minneapolis) and become a successful author, living the sort of glamorous lifestlye that her old highschool pals could only dream of. In reality, she's a mere ghost writer on a series of young adult novels well past the peak of their popularity. She lives in a small, messy, high rise apartment. She binges on fast food and drinks Diet Coke from the bottle. She frequently passes out on her bed while watching bad reality TV. She's almost 40, divorced, no dating prospects, and pining for her high school days when she was queen-bitch, dating the most popular guy in school, and generally on top of the world (here is where me and Mavis greatly diverge, FYI).
Now, it would have been very easy to fill Young Adult with stock characters, and manipulate us to root for Mavis despite her issues. But that sort of cliche-driven stuff that's typical of most movies of this sort never happens. We see multiple facets of these characters. In some ways, Mavis does have it pretty good, and in some ways, she's right to think that her hometown is pretty depressing and worth escaping. And yet, Mavis has serious moral deficiencies, among other issues. Similarly, Buddy is a pretty cool dude who legitimately loves his wife, and his wife is a legitimately cool chick who loves Buddy. Again, it would have been easy to make one or both of them a cartoon character, but Cody and Reitman wisely avoid that temptation. Patrick Wilson also does a great job as Buddy, never overplaying the part. Buddy isn't a dramatic guy, and it makes sense that Buddy reacts to Mavis with a sense of puzzlement and bemusement. Only late in the story does she act out enough to get a real rise out of him, and by that point, it feels earned.
Charlize Theron though - I think this is my favorite performance by her ever. There's something so real-feeling about it. I never felt like I was watching a glamorous Hollywood actress playing a part. Like, with The Descendents, I always felt aware that George Clooney was, sure, playing an average guy, but he never fully shed his movie-starness. Here, Charlize 100% feels like she is Mavis and always has been. It's a phenomenal acting job, one of the year's best. And one thing I was not expecting: this movie is hilarious - it's got more big laughs than almost any other movie I've seen this year. And a lot of that is made possible by the absolutely awesome comedic timing that Charlize Theron brings to the table. Who knew? Meanwhile, the other huge standout here is Patton Oswalt. Patton plays Matt, a former high-school loser who was once the victim of a brutal beatdown from a bunch of asshole jocks that left him with permanent damage to his leg and other extremities. Matt is a good source of comedy in the film, but he's also a pretty sad and tragic character. And he's a nice contrast to Mavis - she wants to go back to her high school days, he wishes he could forget them. Now I knew Patton could act - I'm a huge fan of the movie Big Fan and his work there - but this is another big, big feather in his cap. He does a great job here, and the relationship between Matt and Mavis is suitably twisted. Mavis runs into Matt upon arriving back in Mercury, and somehow, they become unlikely friends and drinking buddies. This in spite of the fact that, in all the time in high school when Matt's locker was right next to Mavis', she never once acknowledged his existence.
The direction here by Jason Reitman is understated and naturalistic. But he includes a ton of little details that really make the movie. From the Diet Coke cans scattered around Mavis' apartment to the depressing genericness of Mercury and its endless strip malls, the movie pulses with a vibe of genuine Americana. The same is true of Diablo Cody's script - it's much subtler and more grounded than what she's done before, and filled with great little character moments and details. Even the song selection, 90's references, etc. - it adds up to a movie that has a unique voice and feels fresh and original (sidenote: best use of 4 Non Blondes in a movie in some time). But everything is also keenly-observed. Going back to The Descendents comparison, the rawness here made me reevaluate that movie's glossiness a bit. This is writing what you know, that is writing one layer removed from the characters. I'm not saying one is better than the other, just that I felt like that rawness meant that, for me, Young Adult really packed a punch.
Sure, I had some minor quibbles ... I felt like something was just a little off with Patrick Wilson's character, where he seemed a little too oblivious at times to Mavis' intentions. I also wish we had seen a little more of Matt's perspective on Mavis. It was hard to tell, I think, to what extent Matt really cared for her, or was just excited that a real-live-woman was giving him the time of day. Overall though, I loved the characters in the film, the dialogue, the vibe.
I feel that YOUNG ADULT is right up there with the year's best. It dares to be edgy and dark and subversive, but what's cool is that it's all of those things without feeling forced. Instead, the whole film feels perfectly natural and real on just about every level. That to me is an accomplishment worth writing home about.
My Grade: A-