Thursday, December 29, 2011

Young Adult Movie Review

What happens to the prom queen and most popular girl in school 20 years after graduation? Does she become successful, remain confident, popular and beautiful? The truth is they go on to lead varied lives just like anyone else. Like the vast majority of humanity I’m sure they turn out ordinary. It may be comforting for those of us who were on the outside looking in to that level of popularity to think that the gorgeous girl who never gave a moment’s notice is now alone and wallowing in self pity. To a certain extent, that’s what Young Adult is about.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a woman who was once the most admired and desired girl in her small hick town in Minnesota. When we first meet her she’s reading an email about the arrival of a new baby to an old flame. As a divorced woman fast approaching middle age and no kids to help ease her transition into obscurity, especially as her series of popular teen fiction books sees reduced sales, she is deeply affected by not only the news that the “love of her life” has moved on, but the realization that she’s got little to show for her years on this earth. We could look at Mavis and see a case of extended adolescence, but she strikes me more as a case of regression to a time when her life seemed far less complicated and much more pleasant.

Mavis works up a scheme to return to her hometown in a vain attempt to seduce her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and woo him away from his life as a family man. After years living away in Minneapolis (“The Mini Apple”), an apparent unreachable dream for so many still stuck in small-town life, she drives around observing that her town looks more or less like every other small town with corporate fast food establishments and pharmacies that strip all individuality from our cities. This is either a comment on the universality of Mavis’s story and that she could be returning to any town in the U.S. or an illustration of why she has little interest in staying there. Either way, she has to pass herself off as some kind of land baron involved in a real estate deal (her excuse for being in town) and also apply layers of pancake makeup to cover up her real age so that Buddy – and everyone else for that matter – will see her as the embodiment of eternal youth and success.

 Between her desperate meetings with Buddy, she meets up (accidentally at first) with Matt (Patton Oswalt), an old geeky classmate who, during senior year, was severely beaten by a group of “jocks” leaving him with a permanent limp and a nearly unusable penis. He becomes her conscience, advising her to steer clear of Buddy lest she come across looking pathetic. The co-dependent relationship that develops between Matt and Mavis rings of the poetic justice every geek dreams about: to one day be able to compare your life to that of the prom queen and see that she’s sadder than you and to know that her ticket to starting a better life is by listening to your advice. The co-dependence is manifested in Matt’s hobby as an amateur spirits brewer fueling Mavis’s alcoholism while her downward spiral provides a glimmer of hope for his dead-end life of self-imposed isolation and self-pity.

Theron has gotten a good deal of attention and even a Golden Globe nomination for her role. She is an actress of often remarkable and surprising ability. Mavis is a broken woman, emotionally stunted and completely delusional. She is a train wreck waiting to happen and if I met someone like her in real life I’d probably be disgusted, but Theron makes it work, drawing my sympathy by making her more than the sum of her actions. Oswalt has also received good notices for his acting, but I’m less impressed by what seemed to me a solid but ordinary performance. I wonder if the praise he’s drawing is related to the phenomenon of heaping accolades on any actor who does at least a mediocre job at playing a disabled person. He’s effective as Matt, but let’s ease off on the awards consideration.

As a director, Jason Reitman continues to impress mainly with his choice of material. He is clearly comfortable in the niche genre of highbrow ironic social satire tinged with real human drama. Young Adult is not as full of wit as Reitman’s first two movies, Thank You for Smoking and Juno and not nearly as good as Up in the Air, a fact I attribute to the screenplay by Diablo Cody, who won the Oscar for penning Juno. Making Mavis the writer of a Twilight-style series of young adult novels is a stale attempt at connecting her career to her personal life. While she’s writing about characters who obsess about the beautiful boy in school and which girl he really likes, Mavis is engaged in a similar dance in her own head when she thinks about Buddy. She listens to real-life conversations of teenagers in retail outlets to draw inspiration for her characters’ dialogue. Then, as if we didn’t already catch the parallels, she uses one of these absurd lines on Buddy. As we groan with pain for how pitiful she is, Buddy finally recognizes how far gone she is. We all know Mavis is headed for an inevitable meltdown. We can also guess with some degree of accuracy that it will be in public. What I could never have guessed was that her parents would somehow inexplicably be present for it. If you see it, please explain to me why the hell they suddenly appeared.

Ultimately the parallel Cody draws between Mavis’s stunted life and her predilection for writing characters as emotionally stunted as she is facile and not particularly interesting. She writes Young Adult novels. And she behaves like a young adult. And the movie is called Young Adult. Get it? It adds little, if anything, to our understanding of Mavis. In the end I couldn’t help thinking that the whole screenplay is Cody’s way of exorcising her own high school demons rather than exploring a universal human condition.

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