Monday Movie: Young Adult, by Scott Nye
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This article originally ran as a theatrical review.
The last time director Jason Reitman teamed with screenwriter Diablo Cody, the result was Juno, a film as loved as it is loathed (though awards would indicate one more than the other). I wasn’t especially fond of Juno, not because of it’s too-cool-for-high-school dialogue or weirdly forced sense of girl-power confidence, but rather by it’s casually flip attitude towards Juno’s dilemma. Teen pregnancy had never, and hopefully will never again, look so unobtrusive and ironic. With Reitman and Cody’s latest feature, they’ve inverted their strategy, imbuing a story of relatively little consequence, one that would call for irreverence, with way too much depth and way too much tragedy.
Mavis (Charlize Theron) is the girl who never grew up past high school, and if you don’t know this girl already, you can surely see her slowly forming on your Facebook news feed. She’s had a few too many, she’s constantly waking up and having to reassess her surroundings, she still speaks flirtatiously and will probably continue to call herself a “girl” well past age forty. And don’t get me wrong, Theron plays her marvelously, believing every crazy word of it. The story sets in motion almost immediately, when Mavis gets an e-mail from her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his daughter. From there, she decides fairly quickly (for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the film’s 96 minutes) that he’s the answer to her life problems and she’d better win him back before this baby thing really sets in.
She heads back to the small town from whence she came, and all the horror that goes along with that. First, that includes running into a classmate she remembers only for a tragedy that befell him (Patton Oswalt, playing a man overburdened with pathetic quirks), but who before long becomes the only guy in town who understands her…insofar as he is capable. Things really get moving for a second there when Mavis is forced to speak to her parents, with whom she clearly hasn’t for some time now, and the real key to unlocking the genius of the film comes in the ensuing scene. Remember that section of “30 Rock” in which Jon Hamm played a man who never knew how horribly untalented and uninteresting he was because there was always someone there, in awe of his good looks, to assure him that he had it made? Young Adult touches on a lot of that, but it ignores or completely misses the inherent comedic potential, instead constantly asking us to cry for someone who just wants to be loved. It’s fine, and commendable, for Theron to believe every word of her character, but need her writer and director? Some distance, in this case, would have actually been more insightful, packed a greater punch.
The film’s subplot actually manages to gain some traction. Mavis is an author of young adult novels, and during her trip she attempts to complete the final book in her series, a gossipy high school soap opera, and neither the film nor Mavis make any bones about the fact that she’s pretty much reconfiguring her life into her story. This ends up being a really sharp device, actually, but not for the reasons you may expect – this is the last book in the series because it’s being cancelled, which on the surface is makes the books just a passing fad, but gains greater import because it’s her life on the page. At a bookstore, she desperately tries to sign some copies over the employee’s complaint that, after they’re signed, they won’t be taken back by the publisher. It’d be one thing if this was merely Mavis’ livelihood, but what gives the scene its power is that they’re also, in many ways, her soul.
It is, however, one of too few bright lights amidst the darkness.
There are large chunks of the screenplay that feel like a black comedy waiting to break out, but Cody is too self-aware to carry that all the way and Reitman is far too determined to really say something you guys to let that aspect loose. So many scenes that feel made for social satire are watered down, self-reflexive, and so… leaden. Every time the film threatens to find some life, Reitman grinds it to a halt, but for what? Mavis’ periods of personal reflection and awareness are so brief, fleeting, and immediately beaten down with good company, good drink, or both, that there’s nothing to be gained from the glacial pace. And yet, by the time the film ended, I still thought to myself, “That’s it?” Mavis has roundly rejected all attempts to grow as a human being, but the way in which she does – by mentioning her problems to people who assure her that everything’s all right – isn’t an interesting dramatic device at all. It’s hilarious. But it’s not played that way.
I’ve mostly been okay with what Reitman’s done in the past, and with Up in the Air came as close as you can to loving a film that ends with a series of people literally speaking the film’s moral directly into the camera (Stanley Kramer was more subtle). That just makes me all the more disappointed to find that he was the one holding this film back. Cody’s screenplay is mostly game, and in more flexible hands could’ve been an exceptional, pointed, truly subversive piece.