There’s a genuine ambivalence about small town life at the heart of Diablo Cody’s Young Adult that finally drives the film home after a rocky start. I choose the word “genuine” very carefully because it’s not an adjective you’d normally attach to Cody’s career, so far more of an ironic pose than something rooted in anything resembling actual human experience. And yes, Young Adult is very much her film. Jason Reitman is listed as the director, but he’s more of an innocent bystander to the material than an authorial voice, just like he is in every one of his other movies. Young Adult definitely belongs to Cody and to star Charlize Theron with a capable assist provided by Patton Oswalt.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, a bitter, aimless drunk whose sole success in life – moving to Minneapolis and ghostwriting a series of young adult novels – is already fading fast as the film begins. Facing a grim future, she turns to her past and her old high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) who stayed behind in tiny Mercury, Minnesota to marry and start a family. Mavis sees Buddy as trapped in a rut and imagines he’d only be all too grateful to be rescued from his suburban domestic hell with its diaper changings and shitty malls and chain restaurants. She’s wrong of course and awkward, occasionally caustically funny chaos ensues.

Young Adult takes way too long to set up this relatively simple character and conceit. For a full 50 minutes it doesn’t really go anywhere, but it starts to fire on all cylinders around the point Mavis begins to bond with her old locker neighbor Matt (Oswalt). Matt was the nerdy high school fat kid left a cripple by a group of classmates who savagely beat him because they thought he was gay (the sad irony for Matt is that even his celebrity was short-lived when it turned out he was actually straight). That the emotional cripple bonds with the physical cripple is certainly not subtle and Cody’s script hits that button repeatedly, but it still works. Cody, Theron and Oswalt’s willingness to go this dark are what finally give the story some vitality.

At this point, Cody might’ve gone in one of two equally problematic ways. She might have re-embraced small town life as an idyllic lost paradise, or she might have just used the story to continue hammering away at the shabby, bland regressiveness of little Mercury and the people who stayed behind. Luckily, Cody finds a trickier third way. She leaves the citizens of Mercury their basic dignity while also making it clear Mavis’ instincts to get out in the first place were sound. Mavis’ problem isn’t that she moved on, it’s that she left behind the good things while still clinging to the bad.

Mavis is one of those roles that requires an actress to be willing to come across rather badly. There is nothing lovable about her and it takes a long time to even begrudgingly sympathize with her. Theron is naturally pretty, but as Mavis she looks worn down even when she makes herself up. It’s not a case of a glamorous actress dressing down to look frumpy. Theron physically looks worn out behind the hair and makeup. The way she continues to wield that bitchy entitlement born of being the high school princess is sad, repellent but also somehow funny.

Oswalt is also excellent as Matt. Equal measures funny and kind of pathetic, he’s as broken and stuck as Mavis, but he at least has an excuse. Oswalt lets Matt be vulnerable and sad while also infusing him with a tiny measure of backbone.

While Young Adult takes its time getting going, give it credit for being neither an easy satire of a fallen high school prom queen nor a nostalgic lament for a lost small town past. It exists ambiguously somewhere in between and in that gray area, Cody is at least plumbing an honesty and a maturity she hasn’t shown before.

★★★½☆ 

10 Responses to “Young Adult (2011)”

  1. I quickly scanned this review, as I will be seeing the 8:15 P.M. showing at the Chelsea Cinemas in Manhattan tonight. I’ll keep in mind that it starts slowly though, and will return to say more.

    Our excellent friend Pierre is no fan of this film.

  2. Pierre hated it, and I can see why. My disagreement with him on this issue is only modest and definitely not something I’d come to blows over.

    I was surprised he didn’t like Theron though because I thought she was very good. Actually I don’t think he said she was bad, only that she was miscast.

  3. hmmm i think the first part of the film is filled with character identification, no?

  4. It’s definitely setting her up, but I started getting really impatient with it. She was set up for me pretty well in the opening 15 minutes, but that part kind of kept going on.

    It all paid off and I guess that’s all that matters.

  5. I didn’t think Theron was miscast, and I completely agree that the drama improved after the first third. She’s riveting in her unsympathetic role, and Oswalt matches her.

    I’d say 3 or 3.5, which is really in full agreement with your position. A very perceptive review of a film that isn’t easy to summarize.

  6. Craig, I’m guilty of having misled you into thinking I hated this film. I didn’t hate it, but it did piss me off. I’m mad at Diablo Cody for co-producing a screenplay that needed more work. It’s true that we see writers and directors evolve by watching what they’ve done for the screen. Considering the cost of Hollywood films, however, audiences deserve more than what we’ve been served here.

    Cerebrally, the basic ideas of the story are fine. It’s the execution that’s wanting.

    occasionally caustically funny chaos ensues.

    I think there’s too much caustic and not enough funny, and I fault Cody, Reitman and Theron.

    Speaking of the lead — and I’m addressing Sam — I believe Theron is appropriately cast in terms of basic preprequesites as to “type.” What bothers me about her performance is that when one plays a character with unsympathetic qualities, either the actress, the director or the writer needs to supply something else to bounce off of. Without that, the character isn’t that interesting, and doubts arise as to why the story is centered on her. We never really get to see hints of what Theron was like as a person during her high school years. Knowing that she was prom queen, pulled her hair out, and issued blow jobs behind the school isn’t enough to merit a 2-hour film. So, Theron is miscast in the sense that she doesn’t have the skill to fully realize the character.

    While it’s true that Theron hit many of the notes required of her character, in drama one cannot play depression alone. In this sense, an actor must add something to make the character interesting. Theron doesn’t have the training to do this. And Cody’s screenplay provides little or nothing to work with in this respect. The result is that the film falls flat when it could’ve been much better.

    Thank goodness that Cody created the character played by Oswalt — without him the film would’ve been a near-total disaster.

    Cody is at least plumbing an honesty and a maturity she hasn’t shown before.

    I’ll give you that, Craig. But there are better writers out there who haven’t yet had an opportunity like this. I do believe that Cody has talent. It’s just that I’m annoyed to see unrefined missteps flaunted before my eyes, presumably because there are so few female writers being showcased.

  7. Pierre, I think my expectations of the movie were that it was going to be funnier, and at first I was annoyed that it wasn’t, but in the end I think it was a conscious choice to play it mostly straight and it finally makes for a better movie than if it had just been satire.

    Sam, what did Lucille think of it?

  8. Craig:

    I am sorry to report that Lucille fell asleep during the movie as she had a demanding day in school on Friday. Shame too, as from what I saw I think she would have liked it to at least a fair degree.

  9. BTW, that was a tremendous response from Pierre!!!

  10. Craig, whether it was a conscious choice or not, the tone of the film was inconsistent with itself. Dramatic material can be real and still have humor or satire, but the fusion of it in this film didn’t work much of the time. It’s pretty clear that the main character is not just misguided but mentally ill. That’s no laughing matter, but it’s a fact that needs to be reconciled within the screenplay and by the actor’s performance. Something needed to be added, either explicitly or implicitly, to add interest to the character. I honestly question whether Cody, Theron or Reitman is aware of this. In any event, it wasn’t dealt with satisfactorily.

    In the case of such depression or mental illness, playing it straight does not work; something needs to be added, perhaps in the screenplay but most certainly in the performance. That’s what I was taught, and that’s my experience.

    Sam, unless Lucille has a ton of Xmas gifts for you that she’s been wrapping in secret, it sounds like you may be working her too hard with theater- and filmgoing!

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