Around the beginning of this decade, there were a few young American filmmakers whom I followed with great interest. One of them was Jason Reitman, whose Juno and Up in the Air had been a couple of my favorite movies of the previous decade. At the same time, thanks to Pixar’s Ratatouille and the comedian’s Twitter account, I was becoming a fan of Patton Oswalt. The two men’s careers converged at the end of 2011 with Young Adult, and I rented the DVD from a Redbox kiosk the following spring. From what I had read on the film, Reitman, along with writer Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron, had crafted an abrasive but funny film about a fiction writer’s solipsistic attempts to relive her high school glory days. I was simultaneously impressed and somewhat repelled by this film’s commitment to showing an unlikable character’s descent to rock bottom. Over the following few years, I became aware that Reitman has a much more negative reputation among critics than I’d realized. Then, in 2014, came Men, Women & Children, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It remains necessary for me to revisit Juno and Up in the Air at some point to see if I was wrong about them, but first I’m taking a second look at Young Adult to decipher if it was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end.
In a lot of ways, this movie is exactly as I remembered it. Theron is gripping, embodying a character of such perfect self-absorption that she can see her objectively monstrous behavior as not only acceptable, but somehow heroic. The plan is to win back her old high school boyfriend, whose wife just gave birth. To watch Theron as young adult ghostwriter Mavis Gary stride into a house party with homewrecking intentions is to see a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara in her red dress, but with a poker face that may be even more impassive than Vivien Leigh’s. Theron never softens Mavis, though the script does point to alcoholism and mental illness to make her more understandable. What keeps Mavis magnetic as a protagonist is a certain intelligence, even insight into other characters’ problems, when she isn’t caught up in her idealistic vision of how her “story” is supposed to end.
The running device of a voice-over recounting passages from Mavis’s final manuscript is where my problems with this film begin. The purpose is so transparent, as Mavis transposes her disappointment in the people around her into a fictional story written for an audience she cares nothing about. A couple scenes show her eavesdropping on conversations between teenagers, fishing for bits of up-to-the-minute jargon. The character’s professional life is a failure, which provides part of her motivation to return to her roots. Despite her outward disdain for her small hometown (something the director lays on thick, with repeated shots of Mavis scowling from behind the wheel of her car at some restaurant [“I noticed you got a Kentaco Hut”] or department store), it’s a deeply regressive move. And indeed the film is quick to show all the ways that Mavis has not matured. Any TV in front of her will have Keeping Up with the Kardashians droning constantly, she has no tact with or patience for other people, and she blurts out egotistical insults while on dates. This is all appropriate and even incisive, but there’s more. The film pays special attention to everything Mavis must do to spruce herself up. In repose, she is sloppy and slouchy. Only when she becomes a seductress does she put her best foot forward, and the film devotes multiple close-ups to her nails getting manicured and painted. The purpose, again, is out in the open. Mavis is fighting a futile battle to deny that the years have gotten away from her. It’s all pointed toward a thesis instead of breathing life into a character, and here might be the clearest sign that Reitman was headed downhill as a filmmaker.
There are plenty of bright spots, too. One detail that I may have somehow missed when I first saw this is the reprise of the Teenage Fanclub song “The Concept.” At the beginning of the film, Mavis plays a mixtape featuring the song that her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), gave her back in high school. Later, Mavis is present to hear Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and her band play the song in a bar. The “ownership” of the song has passed along to the new couple, but Mavis’s intense proprietary instinct creates a psychic break inside her. The recent Minneapolis transplant sneers at the local culture, but the film itself never adopts her attitude. It would have been very easy to make fun of the distinct accents or lack of guile in small-town Minnesota. Many films, good and bad, have. Young Adult downplays these signifiers. The point is that even though Mavis believes she escaped her home, she’s still stuck. Only her clothing indicates someone who doesn’t belong.
Finally, there’s Patton Oswalt, who garnered almost as much acclaim for his performance as Charlize Theron did for hers. The eureka moment in this film comes when Mavis and Oswalt’s Matt discover together that they’ve suffered similar developmental hitches, allowing past hurts to lock them in place with nothing hopeful on the horizon. Diablo Cody made Matt the voice of reason in this film, repeatedly shattering Mavis’s delusions with a sharp wit. It’s all very satisfying, but it also transforms the film into a recapitulation of the old high school comedy trope where the girl thinks she’s in love with the hot guy while the nerdy but sensitive guy is right under her nose. It’s too cute for this film, which otherwise builds inexorably to what is still one of the most (literally) cringeworthy climaxes I’ve seen.
This movie is a decidedly mixed bag, but my overall impression is that it’s basically unpleasant but without enough meat on its bones to make the trip worthwhile. You can guess which conclusions the film will reach, although there is a nice curveball thrown toward the end that keeps it from being all “hugging” and “learning.” Reitman and Cody don’t quite have the conviction or the discipline to make a truly black comedy. They feel the need to reassure us that they know who’s right and who’s wrong here. (“Beth teaches special needs kids.” Yikes.) But I can’t throw the film out entirely. There are too many strong performances, too many sharply observed scenes. So I’ll knock the film down to three stars: respectable and forgettable.