By Richard von Busack
Sometimes a movie is particularly irritating just because it’s about 10 degrees away from something that might have worked.
In Young Adult, Diablo Cody gets away from the arch slang of Juno: Oscar-winning wrtiting, but personally it made my hair hurt. She’s aiming for a bigger target here.
Young Adult is about Mavis (Charlize Theron), an entitled woman in her 30s, a hack writer for the Waverly Prep School series of young-adult novels. She conducts herself like a Big A author, as if she were a finalist for the Booker Prize.
Needing a break, Mavis drives her Mini Cooper from her home in Minneapolis to the small town where she grew up. While Mavis is there, she plans to rescue her high-school prince Buddy (Patrick Wilson) from the wife whom he surely must be tired of, by now. Buddy and his surprisingly tolerant wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser, Esme from the Twilight series) have just had a new baby.
Mavis puts her war paint on to meet Buddy for a drink, but she should be discouraged. Buddy shows no sign of dissatisfaction. Still, the casting of Wilson is smart. People who saw playing a different prom king in Little Children can suspect him of mulling over adultery.
This premise is a fine, teasing one for comedy. The problem is that Cody lost her nerve and decided to alternatize this, adding a touch of the zaniness of Juno. The small town is called “Mercury, Minnesota”—Cody is, above all an Olympian self-mythologizer. What we see in Mercury can’t convince us this is supposed to be a bad small town, stinky from some kind of agribusiness.
Also, Cody had to include a nod to the righteous moms she probably knows in Hollywood. Beth is one of a quartet of the Mercury mothers. They take a break from breast-feeding to play in a bar in a band called Nipple Confusion—just how backwards is Mercury supposed to be?
If you’re writing about a small town where nothing happens, it would have been better to find a place that looked that bad, beaten up by the lousy economy of 2011.
Reitman has far less success in portraying the starkness, loneliness and boredom caught in the Minnesota of the Coen’s A Serious Man. There are strip malls—Mavis stares as if she’s never seen one before. (She’s also called a “genius” for commenting on the fact that some rival fast food places share the same building.)
The too smooth backdrops are more than a case of a world that the self-obsessed and drunken heroine doesn’t want to notice. It’s more a case of not visualizing the script and hoping that the viewers will think the bland, too pretty visuals will look like a satire of John Hughes. The filmmakers really pose Mavis in front of a wave of nostalgic music; it’s a soundtrack album in search of a script, with Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” predominating.
Mavis picks up a drinking buddy whom she barely remembers from high school, Matt (Patton Oswalt). He’s the one person who understands Mavis’s plight. Matt is a pudgy, short beta-male still crippled from being queer-bashed by a gang years ago. Oswalt is covert—he’s a good reactor, comically tolerating Mavis’ many moods.
He gives this film some earned bitterness, and Young Adult snaps out of its sitcomishness whenever he turns up. In the fullness of things—as Mavis completes her public train-wreckage at a party—he turns into another reflector for her former magnificence.
Trying to avoid the standard alcoholic recovery-movement ending, Young Adult executes a moonshiner’s turn into admiration for Mavis’ feistiness.
Charlize Theron can look ratty, and slutty, and drunk. She does unglam things like picking at herself, pulling out her own hair, or spitting into a printer’s ink cartridge to prime its pump. She neglects her poor Pomeranian lap dog, and passes out drunk on the bed fully clothed every night, butt in the air. It’s funny, but it’s one-level funny, and it’s like watching an SNL skit go on for an hour.
While Theron is an enjoyable comedic bitch, it’s not that you feel Mavis came from a writing background. Why would someone who had a lock on the “Best Hair” award at her high school even bother with something as low-class as writing?
The part about Mavis’ authorship is, of course, Cody’s way of setting her seal on this character, of making her a navel-gazer who sees what others don’t see. We’re supposed to feel that there’s not just fool’s gold in Mavis, but the real thing if you dig deep enough.
Meanwhile, Cody and Theron are congratulated for their edginess, for creating an unsympathetic character…without giving us anymore than this woman’s aimless grudges, and her transparent yearning for motherhood disguised as a dislike of babies.
Incidentally, one of the things that makes mumblecore films bearable is their smallness. The nasty fail-prone and mean for the fun of it characters have a bad cheap and ugly world to live in. While these films are often half-baked, and self-pitying, they challenge visual and sound aesthetics. They strive against the idea that movies have to be about pretty people with pretty problems. In Young Adult, Reitman and Cody seem to be attempting that kind of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking without having the stomach to go really down and dirty.