“Young Adult” is a comedy in that there are laughs to be had at the expense of the certifiably delusional main character and just about everybody else around her whom she makes miserable, and a drama basically for the exact same reasons. It is humorous and heartbreaking in one fell swoop.
This marks the second film collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the first being the wonderful 2007 dramedy “Juno.” Jason Reitman, who is the son of “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman, has risen to prominence as one of the most dependable contemporary directors of this generation by churning out one great movie after another. First was his brilliant 2005 satire “Thank You For Smoking,” then came the delightful “Juno.” His third film was the superbly written “Up In The Air,” and now Reitman delivers yet another bittersweet effort and perhaps his most low-key film to date.
As for Diablo Cody, it seems that she has her fingers squarely on the heartbeat of those pesky high school years, or in this case, the reminiscence of those four years in life. Of course, the script for “Juno” confronted the dilemma of teen pregnancy, which seems to be an omnipresent issue in most high schools. Her next written work, the screenplay for “Jennifer’s Body,” was a campy “Lost Boys” wannabe horror-comedy about a possessed serial killer who conveniently happens to be a popular girl in high school (and who better for a popular girl than Megan Fox?). This time, she aims for the jugular with a script that successfully nails a particularly heinous walk of life with both sharpness and heart.
“Young Adult” chronicles the exploits of its aggressively pathetic main character Mavis Gary, played exceptionally well by Charlize Theron. Mavis is a kind of megalomaniacal thirty-something ice queen who is destined for a self-imposed state of depression somewhere down the line. She writes for a series of young adult fiction novels that are reaching the end of their popularity, she drinks Coca-Cola straight from the bottle like a child on a sugar-high, she suffers from alcoholism (and she knows it), and the closest thing she has to a life partner is a small dog. It makes it all the more dismal when it is revealed that she only ghostwrites the books and embezzles the words from overly-romanticized conversations between passing teenagers at the supermarket who have clearly been reading too much Twilight.
As icing on the cake, nobody is quite caring or concerned enough to save her from herself. She has a drinking problem? Big whoop. The worst part of it all is that she doesn’t care that she is driving faster and faster toward the inevitable brick wall she is bound to hit. To her, it is better she just crash and get it over with than actually pick herself up and get it together.
To retreat from the big city life and her most recent case of writer’s block, Mavis decides to pay a visit to her old hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. This is where she went to high school, was crowned prom queen, cavorted with all the other cool kids, and was basically encouraged in her narcissism and bad behavior. All those years ago, she had a long-term romantic relationship with one Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). And Mavis returns to this small town with one goal in mind: to rekindle the spark between she and Buddy.
Fair enough. I can get with that…if only Buddy were not already married to his loving wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and if only this couple did not just have their first beautiful child. Yet Mavis is still determined to get him back one way or another. She cleans herself up nicely, dashes her face in makeup, and even pulls a complete personality transformation when she is out with Buddy. Kind of like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario, only she proudly flaunts her bad side to the rest of the world.
To provide some much-needed counterbalance to Mavis’s unpardonable schemes is the benevolently geeky Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt and Mavis’s past likely go just as far back as she and Buddy’s, but Mavis must have been too preoccupied in her teen years to notice Matt. These two had lockers side-by-side, though chances are that neither of them exchanged more than a total of five words. Only after she notices his crutch and wonky leg does she recognize him as ‘the hate crime guy.’ Poor Matt was brutalized a long time ago by a bunch of jocks who accused him of being gay. The traumatizing incident forever crippled him in one of his legs, not to mention it did quite a number on his genitals. The two form a sort-of friendship due in part to Matt’s steadfast ability to provide booze. Just what Mavis needs.
What makes the movie so unmistakably good is how unapologetically and how rationally it plays these scenarios. It is a study of a girl who grew up being so beautiful and so admired that the excessive attention and compliments carried over with a vengeance into her adult life, and is the fundamental roadblock as to why she cannot develop into a sane human being. I don’t want to be so quick to judge, but I imagine this is the type of self-inflicted state of arrested development that happens to a lot of popular people after they graduate from high school. My mother informed me after watching the film that she knew people who DID turn out this way.
In most other mainstream comedies, a girl who would try to win the affections of a married man would be rooted for and cheered on in her disreputable ploys. Reitman presents the situation for what it is, while Theron fearlessly plays an unkempt Mavis coming loose at the seams. As members of the audience, we instinctively want to care about the main character in the films we see. For as terrible a human being as she plays in “Young Adult,” there is something strange about the ways we feel toward Mavis: we do not want her to succeed in her own selfish goals, but we want to see her do the right thing, whatever that may be.
This will probably be one of those polarizing films amongst audiences. Some will praise it as a delightfully acerbic character evaluation with a handful of laughs throughout. Others will simply say it is a flat story with a hateful leading character and no real resolution. The Ben Stiller vehicle “Greenberg” suffered from the same split decisions (and I actually didn’t like that one too much). Count me in on the camp that declares this another triumph on Reitman and Cody’s part, even if triumph sounds like an inappropriate word choice to describe a work that is such a celebration of human dysfunction.