Review: Young Adult

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As an admirer of both Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody (I was one of the few to like Jennifer’s Body), I was extremely disappointed with Young Adult, ninety minutes spent with one of the most unpleasant characters to shoulder a film in recent memory. But it isn’t that she’s unpleasant that’s the problem–there is nothing inherently wrong with having a protagonist that the audience doesn’t like, if she’s in talented hands–but the character here is unpleasant and uninteresting.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels, which Cody has an abiding passion for (she was signed to write a movie on the Sweet Valley High series). As the film opens, we see that she is a sad and lonely person, as she lives in a messy but chic apartment, has meaningless sex, and her only companion is a lapdog. When she gets an email that her ex-boyfriend has just had a baby, she gets the absurd notion that if she goes back to her podunk hometown she can win him back, and thus will solve all her problems.

This seemed a lot like the Julia Roberts film My Best Friend’s Wedding, and that, believe it or not, was a much better picture, with Roberts at least informing her role with a zany questful nature. Theron, in this film, is a tissue of psychoses, and at no point in this film will anyone be rooting for her. I will give Cody credit for the audacity of allowing her character to have a breakthrough, but then having another character, in a big speech, reinforce her insanity and send her off in a haze of delirium. I wonder what Cody’s intention was for us to think about as we put on our coats–that people who live in small towns really are fat and dumb, and that living in a big city is better, even if we are mentally ill?

Theron’s ex-beau is played dully by Patrick Wilson, who is oblivious to her intentions. Her confidante is Patton Oswalt, who might have been the subject of a better movie. He was viciously beaten in high school by jocks who thought he was gay. He now hobbles around on a crutch, makes his own bourbon, and paints comic book hero miniatures. Roberts sidekick in My Best Friend’s Wedding was the gay Rupert Everett, and while Oswalt’s character is not gay, he might as well be. Cody makes a big mistake by allowing these characters to sleep together.

I really don’t think there’s anything I liked about this film. Reitman’s films are known for their over-reliance on qurkly direction, (he really goes wild in Thank You For Not Smoking and Juno) that I have enjoyed, but here his heart doesn’t seem in it, and he lets the script just play out. That is a mistake, for this script isn’t particularly witty (I think I laughed once, but I forget at what) or emotionally resonant. The attempt to have Theron’s work in progress, about a high school girl who is so popular (she has the yearbook dedicated to her, even though there was another student who died) is band-aided on and laughably amateurish.

Theron gives a technically fine performance, and manages to look beautiful and off-putting at the same time, but I don’t think any actress could have made this work.

My grade for Young Adult: D+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

13 responses »

  1. A friend me gave me the gist of some stuff and it sounds UBER, UBER depressing. I already lean to depression to an extent. Don’t need it, man.

  2. I already lean to depression to an extent. Don’t need it, man.

    Looks as though we use the same formula for movie viewing.

  3. I’m indifferent in general towards Reitman and Cody, but in the interest of full disclosure I did enter the movie with strong affections for both Theron and Oswalt. But neither are enough to make a bad movie good (see AEON FLUX or BIG FAN).

    But all of that aside I found the film to be darkly funny, smart and ballsy in its ending. Mavis is a fascinating character in her duality as someone who appears to herself and others to have it all but who in reality is a mess. Watching her slow, resentful realization play out was both humorous and sad in equal measure, and as bad of a person as she is you can’t help but feel for her as she starts flailing to stay above water.

    It’s an admittedly fine line to walk with such a selfish and “unlikeable” character (see Cameron Diaz’ cartoonish character in BAD TEACHER), but I think Cody and Theron pull it off. Mavis’ attitude and lack of awareness moved effortlessly between being cruel and being humorous, and her interactions with Matt featured some great back and forth exchanges.

    And then the ending sealed the deal for me as it both teased and subverted the expected.

    That said, I understand why someone wouldn’t like it. Usually when people dislike movies I love I’ll lay the blame squarely at their feet, but YOUNG ADULT is a rare case where the tone, central character and ending may be more of an acquired taste. The closest comparison I can think of at the moment is Mike Nichols’ CLOSER. I love that movie, but many people I know can’t get past the constant cruelty of the unlikeable characters and the near-hopeless atmosphere throughout. (I say near because of Portman’s walk of freedom at the end.)

  4. Holy hell, do I love Closer.
    I sat in front of the Adams statue in front of Faneuil Hall on the bench right beside Houston’s front entrance and read that play 4 times in a row. I watched the movie and reveled in Owen’s take on that character and man, oh, man….did I eat up Notes on a Scandal, which Marber wrote, too. In short, I really like Marber’s writing.

  5. I thought Young Adult was a truly nasty piece of work. It’s one thing to have an unlikable character, but I wasn’t really prepared for the contemptuousness of the movie’s tone. It invents a character that deserves to be humiliated, and then goes about humiliating her good and hard. It’s a movie with a very ugly soul.

    And it’s not even very good anyway. Lots of little things that are wrong – what kind of small town has a Macy’s at the mall? What’s the deal with the surly hotel clerk? I’ve traveled a fair amount and stayed at my share of mid-range hotels and I’ve never encounted anyone like that. Oswalt’s good, as far as it goes, but his character is a disaster. The voiceover narration is trite and unnecessary besides. The end hinges on a speech straight out of bizarro world made by a minor character who has no stake in the story up until that point.

    I’m with Slim here, the movie just sucks.

  6. I don’t get a contemptuous tone from the movie at all… from Mavis yes, but not from the movie. The film makes it pretty clear that she is the one in the wrong and some of these “simple” people are legitimately happy with their lives. The end speech doesn’t justify or commend Mavis’ behavior, but it’s all she needs to step back from the edge of betraying her character and retreat back to her own world. The fact that it’s a minor character supporting her cause is important because this isn’t someone we or Mavis has invested any real time with… just someone who wants an out and refuses to see Mavis as anything but the rock star she’s always believed her to be. Neither she nor Mavis are right, but hearing it from anyone is all she needs to continue living the lie she’s told herself.

  7. Like all of Reitman’s work: tolerable, but completely unmemorable. I didn’t get the sense that he or Cody had much of an idea of what they were trying to accomplish here beyond making a knockoff Alexander Payne film (and a poor one at that)

    I actually did love the ending though.

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