The problem with people who think they’ve grown up without growing old is that they’ve invariably done the opposite. Young Adult, a mouth-wateringly sour anti-romantic comedy directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, is about a particularly nasty case. “Young Adult” is the first collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody since the success of their “Juno” (2007). Once again they center on a woman, but Juno was enormously likable and Mavis seems unaware of her frightening effect on people.
Charlize Theron plays the depressed, borderline alcoholic divorcee and irresistibly unpleasant Mavis Gary, an attractive single woman in her mid-thirties whose juvenile, self-involved mindset has served her well in a career writing novels for the young adult market. She is a ghostwriter on a once popular series of high school novels that’s about to be axed. When we first encounter her, Mavis Gary seems to have grown, though perhaps not in the most constructive ways. Crossing the treacherous, unmarked boundary between her mid- and late-30s, Mavis has acquired some of the trappings and habits of adulthood. She lives in a spacious, slightly sterile high-rise apartment in Minneapolis and has, for company, a fuzzy little dog and a big, flat-screen television permanently tuned to some Kardashian or another. Eventually we hear about a divorce, though not much about the marriage that preceded it.
When Mavis receives an email from the now married ex-sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his baby son, she realizes something is missing from her life, but comes to the unfortunate conclusion that it’s Buddy. Looking for a way to break out of her rut and return some luster to her life, Mavis decides to go back to her hometown, Mercury, Minn., and reconnect with her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Buddy, who is married, has just become a father for the first time. To Mavis, this can mean only that he is trapped in a domestic prison from which she must rescue him. Out of the blue she decides to revisit her native hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, where 20 years ago she was prom queen. She drives back to her home town with the aim of convincing him to leave his wife and newborn child for her. Mavis’s mad aim is to win back her handsome high-school boyfriend. On the road from Minneapolis to Mercury, Mavis plays an old compilation album that Buddy made for her when they were still an item, which, tellingly, is recorded on cassette from Buddy, fixating on “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub, which serves as the film’s ambiguous anthem. It evokes warm and affectionate memories, but also, in her case, the pathological inability to let go of the past.
And so she arrives in Mercury intent on breaking up his marriage, a plan she justifies to herself in the romantic language of destiny, soul mates and following your heart.
While waiting for Buddy in a bar, Mavis bumps into another ex-schoolmate: tubby, geeky Matt Freehauf (played by the tubby, geeky comedian Patton Oswalt). She doesn’t recognise him at first, but, when she spots a walking aid propped up against his bar stool, the penny drops. Mavis is incapable of empathy. When Matt (Patton Oswalt) explains how he was taken out into the woods behind the school and brutally beaten by her old high school friends (or, the guys she used to give blow jobs to at lunch, as he describes them), she stares blankly. The beating damaged his head, groin and legs, and was so vicious it left him permanently disabled. It destroyed his life. Mavis is glassy eyed and remembers only the fun in the woods. The story seems to bore her. Matt spent his senior year, and every year since, in crutches after an (inaccurate) rumour about his sexuality resulted in him being beaten to a pulp. “I remember you! You’re the hate-crime guy!” shrieks Mavis, as if that might have been the caption underneath his yearbook picture. Despite Matt’s vocal misgivings, Mavis presses ahead with her plan to win back her strapping ex, and it seems we’re being presented with a standard-issue nerd/jock/babe arrangement.
Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody follow up their bright, optimistic teenage comedy, Juno, with a dark variation on the homecoming/nostalgia-trip movie. At first it’s funny and superior as Mavis patronises her despised Hicksville roots and prepares herself for conquest. It modulates into funny and embarrassing, before it becomes unadulterated embarrassment verging on the deeply sad and even tragic. Alcoholism explains a lot of things: her single status, her disheveled apartment, her current writer’s block, her lack of self-knowledge, her denial, her inappropriate behavior. Diablo Cody was wise to include it; without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane. As it is, even in the movie’s last scene, she reminds me of what Boss Gettys says of Citizen Kane: “He’s going to need more than one lesson. And he’s going to get more than one lesson.”
One of Young Adult’s greatest strengths is that, even on the few occasions when it does go where you expect, it goes there via an unexpected detour: without revealing too much, there’s a sex scene that one member of this cast will have never dreamed would end up on their CV. Like Cody, Theron has clearly dug deep for this film, and the results are riveting. As Mavis, she uses her considerable beauty like the plump red leaves of a venus flytrap, and it’s fascinating to see an actress immersed in a role that undermines her glamorous screen persona without requiring her to “ugly up”. It’s a hugely satisfying case of right actress, right role, and the dividends are only compounded by the presence of the right director. Theron is excellent and heartbreaking as she experiences her midlife crisis and sees how much she’s misread the world around her. Theron shows how Mavis’s genius for being a high school queen bee now has a tragically pointless late flowering in the company of Buddy’s warily polite wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). . But the star of the film is stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt as the pudgy former classmate she’d ignored who becomes her new confidant. As a teenager he briefly achieved a sort of fame as the victim of a hate crime when he was permanently crippled by bullies who attacked him in the belief that he was gay. When he proved to be straight, his case was considered less interesting, and he settled for a life as an eccentric, friendless stoic. The film’s moral is that you can go home again, but you’d be wise not to.
One of the most refreshing things about Young Adult is Mavis’s cleverly unexpected dialogue scene with Matt’s homely sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), who still worships her. Cody delivers a stinging repudiation of that sentimental piety that is also Hollywood’s biggest and most fatuous lie: that home is always best, and monochrome Kansas is better than dazzling, multi-colour Oz. Hollywood was, of course, built by people who couldn’t wait to leave home. For all her delusions, Mavis has an icily clear and non-PC grasp of what nonsense this “home’s best” line is. She is one of the least sympathetic heroines imaginable, and one of the funniest.
Production year: 2011 | Country: USA | Runtime: 93 mins |
Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana Glauberman; production design by Kevin Thompson; costumes by David C. Robinson; produced by Mr. Reitman, Ms. Cody, Russell Smith, Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich and Mason Novick; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.
WITH: Charlize Theron (Mavis Gary), Patton Oswalt (Matt Freehauf), Patrick Wilson (Buddy Slade), Elizabeth Reaser (Beth Slade), Jill Eikenberry (Hedda Gary) and Richard Bekins (David Gary).