Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

Jason Reitman's and Diablo Cody's Juno showed a self-consciously "quirky" high-school girl growing up quickly to deal with an adult problem, her cloyingly quirky lingo falling by the wayside as she matured into an empathetic, responsible person. Young Adult depicts the inverse of that story, of the prom queen who never outgrew that period of her life where she was some form of royalty, her preserved physical beauty akin to Dorian Gray's aesthetic mask. Soulless and resolutely conceited, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a profoundly unlikable character, a vile creature who despises anyone kind enough to spare her pity and insists on remolding the scariness of the real world back into the teenage years she ruled. Some may blanch at Mavis' sheer mean-spiritedness and unbending attitude, but whom do we see more in real life: the Junos who can quickly adapt and mature, or the Mavises?

Theron plays Mavis as if using the part as a screen test for her upcoming turn as the evil queen in Snow White and the Hunstman. She peers at the world with narrowed, confrontational eyes, perpetually disgusted by the normalcy of adult life but unable to see that she's encased herself in amber. Living in a high-rise tower in Minneapolis, Mavis ghostwrites young adult fiction that allows her to hang onto her perversely stretched youth, and her friend drips steel-melting acid as she sarcastically reassures Mavis that she's completely moved beyond the one-horse town she talks about incessantly. That fixation on her glory days compounds when her old flame sends her a birth announcement, inexplicably prompting a decision to return to her hometown to win him back. Cody and Reitman sell it like the starting point of a romantic comedy, but as Mavis obsessively replays Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" from a mixtape that ex- made her in high school on the way home, her drive resembles Travis Bickle heading for the pimp instead of the usual chasing a lover at the airport. Reitman even zooms into the innards of the cassette, the meticulous overview of its parts visualizing just how completely Mavis has crawled inside her teenage shell to hide from adulthood.

That gutting of traditional romantic comedy mechanics extends through the whole film, which never fails to present Mavis' dream of breaking up the happy marriage of her beloved Buddy (Patrick Wilson) as predatory, not affectionate. As a director, Reitman wisely stays out of Cody's way, but he films everything in harsh, revealing terms, casting unwelcome light on the wrinkles forming on Theron's face to the dirty trackpad of her clearly well-used Macbook. Even wretchedly obvious shots that disdainfully linger on chains like Staples and KFC work by conveying Mavis' stuck-up, hypocritical POV, the immaturity of this film school-grade "commentary" reflecting a character, not the director. Rather than throwing an arm around a lazily superior audience to coddle them, the film practically sets itself against the crowd by mocking such holier-than-thou distaste of mass culture as childish.

And if that doesn't set you on edge, Mavis takes back over after this early montage to seize control of the rest of the movie, and her actions continuously the viewer's patience with her sheer nastiness. Greeting Mavis back in Mercury is not Buddy but Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a doughy nerd who was left crippled by a homophobic beating in high school. But Matt's bitterness soon crowds out any instant sympathy, and he proves as unable to move beyond his past as Mavis. Oswalt brings some of his buried aggression from Big Fan to the part, forming Matt into a mound of impotent fury so hell-bent on feeling sorry for himself that he even hates other disabled people for stealing attention from him. Oswalt essentially plays Mavis' unheeded conscience, but Matt is so unpleasant in his own right that his warnings about leaving Buddy seem to stem more from practical worry than moral concern. The comedian gets most of the film's outright punchlines, but he delivers them with an edge; when Mavis airily explains what a zombie is, Matt snaps, "I'm a fat geek, I know what a zombie is." On paper, that joke reads as mere banter, but Oswalt reads it as if barely keeping his temper in check, anxious to keep check of that myopic grasp on pop culture that constitutes the only territory he knows and controls.

Mavis and Matt make a hell of a misanthropic double act, sniping at everyone within eyesight, including each other. Both receive so much pity from those around them that the brutal takedowns they lob between them are perhaps the first honest assessments they've ever heard of themselves. Matt, who knows he would have no shot with someone like Mavis even at his best, can taunt her for failing book series and her emotional cocoon. Mavis, so unconcerned with hurting someone's feelings, can harangue Matt for being so unapproachable because of his personality, not his disability. (And as a YA writer, she naturally uses hacky, clichéd lines that play on his crutch to do so.)

But not even these confrontations can shake something loose in either character, and Young Adult routinely sets up the usual plot points designed to offer some kind of breakthrough—a drunken kiss, the aforementioned exchange of critical evaluations, even an almost painfully sad scene of shared grief—only to collapse back into self-delusion. I winced all during a party scene near the end, waiting for the explosion that had to come, which it did, albeit in a wholly unexpected manner that managed to sidestep the easy way out but revealed a clarifying piece of information that does nothing to alter one's opinion of Mavis.

This is not easy stuff, and even those who typically have no problem with unsympathetic characters have responded viscerally to the film's unrepentant pessimism. But Cody is no mere nihilist, and Young Adult is filled with good people living contented lives. But they are not the stars, and their lives are not glorious and remarkable in the way they need to be to counteract the two principal players, who view such prosaic happiness as beneath them yet can attain nothing better. One of my notes for Young Adult said it was a better horror film than Jennifer's Body, but upon further reflection, I cannot call it such because it all feels too real and unexaggerated. Some people will never learn, so close-minded that nothing will penetrate years of self-deception and insecurity manifested as perverse haughtiness. Those who dismiss Cody as someone writing what she thinks is teen slang have already had two demonstrations of her criticism of youth and all its inexperience and arrogance. If Young Adult cannot convince them of her rejection of such self-involved attitudes, then perhaps Mavis and Matt aren't the only ones clouded by shallow prejudices.


  1. Totally spot-on review! This movie wasn't what I expected, in a good way, and I appreciated Cody's cleaner, more mature approach to subject matter than in her past two films. It's not an easy watch, to be sure, but it rings true in so many ways I dug it. Nice ending, too.

  2. Yay, I'm so glad other people like this! I loved Juno but this feels like a step forward in just about every way. It's also a directorial breakthrough for Reitman too, ironic given how much he hangs back. One of my favorites of the year.

  3. I'm just glad Cody didn't try to be a female Tarantino with her dialogue in this one. We get it, you're quirky.

    I loved this movie.