March 8, 2012
The first thing to get out of the way when dealing with Young Adult is that Jason Reitman is not a good director. His previous films have been, at best, blandly functional enough for the characters to carry it along without interruption, but at worst he displays little-to-no understanding of how to film two people talking as well as a penchant for jarring stylistic leaps that detract from the story. There are some of those stylistic leaps that just don’t work in Young Adult, including some awkward handheld shots that don’t fit anywhere into the his already boring visual schema. Needless to say, he is not up to the task of making Young Adult work the way it should. As a dark character comedy, there’s a way to handle this kind of awkward humour that he clearly doesn’t understand, and on the other side of the card, there might have been subtle ways to tease out the depth of a number of characters, but we’ll never know because he doesn’t seem to understand that either.
This is not to say that the source material is clear-eyed perfect, because it isn’t. Diablo Cody’s script is at turns excellent and frustrating. There are good, even great concepts here, but there is also a sense of muddled perspective and a lack of a clear authorial view of the material, which is certainly not helped by Reitman’s tone-deaf interpretation. I can say this with some certainty: Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are excellent in their roles, and they also happen to be the only characters in the film that have anything approaching depth. Theron plays Mavis Gary, a 37-year old alcoholic (not that she’s fully embraced this reality) who writes for a soon-to-be-ending young adult fiction series about a high school. When she receives an e-mail announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend Buddy’s (Patrick Wilson) first child with his wife Beth (Elisabeth Reaser), she decides she should leave Minneapolis to head back to her small town of Mercury to win him back and live the life she feels she should be. When there, she meets an old classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), whom she doesn’t recall until she remembers he was savagely beaten and crippled by a group of jocks because they thought he was gay. She confides in him her plan to wreck the marriage, he tries to dissuade her, but before long she’s running to him for support because, well, she doesn’t have anyone else.
Ostensibly a comedy, the treatment of the material is far too grim to truly be funny, but with that gone, it does work as a character study about an alcoholic. This is all fine and well, but it is attempting to explore more than just an alcohol dependency issue. In the end, Mavis and Matt are the only two characters developed to anything beyond a cardboard stereotype that exist only to react to Mavis’ remarkably horrible behaviour, and this is partly – I imagine – by design. If you set up a bunch of characters that behave in a generally “normal” way, then the wild card coming into the scenario will always take center stage. Not that depleting everyone else of human characteristics is the best way to go about it, but I can understand the effect. The issue comes with the way the script treats these “normal” people, which is problematic when it comes down to the perspective it wants to take on the larger issues at work. Mavis sees the small town of Mercury as basically a hellhole, and only a “loser” would still be there. In her mind, she’s “made it” by leaving for the big city (she gently mocks Buddy for calling it the ‘Mini-Apple’, because nobody calls it that anymore). While Mavis’ continuous boasting of her moving to the ‘big city’ is certainly a defense mechanism (she must prove constantly how big she is to these small towners), there is certainly a desire by Cody and Reitman to view the residents of Mercury as an oblivious, ignorant bunch. The lingering shot of the Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut hybrid in the shopping center parking lot is meant to be amusing, and Buddy’s recommendation that they meet up at a neighbourhood grill, Champion’s, is a not-so-gentle jibe at his small-town perspective and expectations. Mavis’ derisive comments about the town are played as mean and insensitive, and yet the film urges us to take the same stance.
There is another level of sadness to the small town culture that buzzes around the edges of the film. Mavis is, obviously, still stuck on the past, youthful glories of her high school, Queen Bee heyday, and she hopelessly attempts to reclaim it by virtually ignoring the two decades that have passed since. The largely unspoken reality, however, is that the town itself, or at least the people we meet through Mavis’ misadventures, haven’t really moved on either. Mavis begins her journey by playing Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” over and over again on the drive, and later on, Beth’s band composed of single moms perform a cover of it at Champion’s. There’s an emotional component to the scene and the use of the song, but there’s a feeling around the edges that these people haven’t really moved on with the cultural aspects of their early 90s (grunge-era) heyday. The music in the bars and the t-shirts sported throughout are relics from a specific time and place in everyone’s lives. Buddy still works at the same large company he always has where, pointedly, his father is also employed. The film (or at least Reitman, who always triumphs down home American family values) certainly favours a very specific notion of “growing up”, but it never really addresses the fact that so many have never really moved on. One wonders whether Cody had any insight into this that she failed to develop or it was just lost in the director’s interpretation. It often feels like everyone is stuck in the same boat, and Mavis just happens to be really shitty about it.
Because of these muddles, as well as the paper-thin characters surrounding the two leads, Young Adult probably works best as a critique of teen comedies. If these characters were in a high school movie, Mavis is the popular prom queen who should be humanized at some point by revealing her own troubles and insecurities to Matt, who in turn gains confidence when he realizes all those fabricated social ideals that he can’t live up to are meaningless when it comes to what’s on the inside. Instead, the logical conclusion of the popular crowd (Mavis included) and their homophobic, bullying is that Matt gets savagely beaten and crippled for life, while Mavis never really grows up and continues to run on as though she’s still the most popular girl around. As Mavis’ life and failed marriage and move to the big city are never properly explored, nor suitably suggested (there’s a revelation towards the end about her relationship with Buddy that does little to explain why she is how she is), it works on this level of theoretical extrapolation. It’s a very intriguing idea, and combined with the very good acting by Theron and Oswalt, it works as a consolation prize for a film that never stops hinting at what better direction and a more fleshed out screenplay could have done for the work. Fitting, then, that Young Adult feels like exactly what it’s about: what could have been.