Young Adult doesn’t always work. But it takes enough chances to be kind of bracing in its bad taste ... sort of like a Christmas package with a bomb inside.
For their sophomore effort director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody — who hit indy film gold a couple of years back with their teen pregnancy laugher Juno — deliver another comedy, albeit one from a considerably darker place.
Charlize Theron, an Oscar winner who thus far hasn’t had many opportunities to exercise her comedy chops, stars as Mavis Gary, an anonymous writer of young adult fiction.
Mavis ghost writes for a series created by another, more famous author. Her career is a lot like her personal life — going nowhere fast.
At 37 she is recently divorced and lavishing whatever love she has to give (and there’s not much) on her fuzzy white lapdog.
The F word (for “failure”) is looming large in Mavis’ future, and she’s not handling it well. She’s still as beautiful as when she was a popular high school cheerleader and as far as Mavis is concerned, happiness is her birthright.
So why not return to those glory days of yesteryear? Mavis gets it into her head that her life will be perfect if she revisits her small home town, hooks up with her high school boyfriend, and gets a fresh start on this whole adult thing.
Young Adult is a comedy of selfishness. Mavis can’t see beyond her own pretty nose. For example, her old beau Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is happily married with a new baby daughter. Most of us would see this as an impediment and a moral obstacle, but not Mavis.
“Sometimes in order to heal,” she opines, “a few people have to get hurt.”
Buddy is a not-particularly-bright guy totally in love with his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and apparently oblivious to Mavis’ outrageous flirting.
Running mental circles around everyone else is classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), an overgrown fanboy whose passion is hand painting superhero action figures. Despite being unmarried, pudgy, and forced to move about with a cane or walker (he was the victim of a h.s. gay bashing incident — even though he isn’t gay), Matt has more self-awareness in his big toe than in all of Mavis’ curvy body.
He becomes her confidant and ironic sounding board (not that she knows what irony entails); at least it gives him a chance to be near the dream girl of his adolescence.
Mavis’ stalking of Buddy is so singleminded and all-consuming that we know she’s heading for a big downfall. And it comes in a total meltdown at the christening of Buddy’s baby daughter.
But here’s the thing about Mavis: She doesn’t learn. Maybe she’s incapable of it. Her notions of self-worth may be totally off base, but she clings to them religiously.
Most movies with the setup of Young Adult would allow their heroine to absorb a painful lfie lesson and become a better person. So it’s an act of no small bravery (or foolishness) on Cody’s part that this doesn’t happen. At film’s end Mavis is just as vain, self-centered, and clueless as when we first met her.
Who knows? Maybe that moral myopia is a survival mechanism.
No rule states that a comedy must end on an upbeat note. Still, Young Adult comes close to wearing out its welcome. Mavis is so irredeemable that after a while an audience can be excused for shifting from bemused observation to something like disgust.
It helps, of course, that Theron is one of the screen’s most beautiful actresses. Otherwise we’d burn out a couple of reels earlier.
Saving things is Oswalt, who provides a bracing dose of sardonicism and bitter humor to leaven the proceedings. This standup comic/actor pretty much steals the show. That he didn’t get an Oscar nomination is at the very least a misdemeanor on Hollywood’s record.
But even here Cody overplays her hand, making of Matt a physical wreck who 20 years later still finds his life defined by an attack by a bunch of Neanderthal football players. When Oswalt describes the impact of that incident on his life, Young Adult ceases to be a comedy. It’s more like a tragedy.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.