In reviewing a movie like Young Adult, you have to understand something first to really put things in perspective. Not everyone’s going to like this film. This isn’t the “feel good” movie of the year. There are many reasons people go out to the movies. One of the main reasons is escape. You want to escape into a fantasy realm where things work out perfectly in the end. Sometimes you root for the main character and, in the best case, you want to relate to them. You want to see them succeed at what they’re trying to achieve. You see a happy ending in sight and wish only that the characters have the strength to get there.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Young Adult… is not one of those movies. If you’ve seen other films by Jason Reitman and have gotten used to the often times whimsical and upbeat tone of those movies, prepare for something darker. Prepare for something grittier. Prepare for something monotonous. Indeed, prepare for something truer to life than any Reitman film that came before it.
Want to know what Young Adult is really like? Hit the jump to find out.
Director: Jason Reitman
Release date: December 16, 2011
Young Adult is based on the book by the same name and screenwritten by the Juno scribe, Diablo Cody, which, if you didn’t know anything about her writing in the past, would seem surprising since she obviously curbed her literary witticisms for this film. Either she wanted to stay very true to the source material or she was pressured into doing it, but the script comes off as deceptively modest in its verbiage. Jason Reitman is left to direct the film as visually and viscerally as he wants without the script turning the characters into talking heads, which is refreshing.
Backing up a bit, Young Adult doesn’t begin like your average Jason Reitman film. Juno started off with the sweet and innocent, guitar-strummed ditty, “All I Want Is You” sung to a youthfully inspired paper cut-out aesthetic overlaying Ellen Page’s eponymous character. Thank You For Smoking started out with an ironic, classic smoking ad montage sung to the even more ironic Western, swing novelty song, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” Up in the Air started off with a montage of a bird’s eye view of cities from all over the US (as the movie is wont to do at certain intervals) played to a jazz-funk infused “This Land Is Your Land” that, while not exactly upbeat, feels appropriately sarcastic.
So, how does Young Adult start out? With a woman faced down in bed as if she had just plopped down the night before and hadn’t moved since… with no overlaying music of which to speak. That comes later… and even better? It’s relevant to the story. Even at the intro, Young Adult strives to do something different.
Young Adult is light on plot and heavy on character development. It’s about a woman named Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) who writes for the aptly-named “young adult” demographic, which is just as ironic as it is appropriate, since this woman has done anything but flourish into an adult. She was the typical “prom queen bitch” in high school that we’ve all become familiar with from all those horrible/delightful teen movies from the 90’s. The rub here is: what happens to that girl when she finally grows up?
Her glory days behind her now, Mavis lives out her life as a ghost writer of a series of novels made famous by another author, to which she receives none of the actual credit. She is abruptly emailed a celebratory photo of her high school sweetheart’s new baby as a product of marital bliss. She is, of course, disgusted by this and she gets the terrible idea that her ex-boyfriend is trapped in this prison of a life with a wife and child that he doesn’t want, so what does she decide to do? She drives back to her hometown to steal him away. That’s the plot, by the way.
This plot would seem silly in your typical comedy director’s hands, but there’s something tragic and downright disturbing about what leads up to this decision. Most of it can be gleaned from seeing how Mavis Gary lives out her pitiful excuse for a life. First off, she’s a slob and not particularly caring about anyone other than herself. Her thoughts and conclusions she draws about people are more irrational and cynical than pretty much any character I’ve witnessed on-screen. On top of that, she has an assortment of problems, such as hair-pulling (the medical term being Trichotillomania) and a penchant for showing complete and total disgust in her facial expressions. If there’s one thing you understand by the get-go, it’s that Mavis Gary… has issues. Lastly, her peppy Pomeranian purse pup serves to contrast Mavis’ repulsive persona.
Charlize Theron gives one of her best performances to date as Mavis Gary. To be perfectly honest, I never really liked Charlize Theron in any of her roles. Something about her has repelled me since Aeon Flux, I think, and I just haven’t really cared for anything she’s done before or since. However, in Young Adult, she takes this sociopathic character and gives her such an insane, edgy and rough quality that is hard to resist.
Whereas Charlize is wonderfully cynical, her opposite; her nemesis; her doppelganger if you will, is Patton Oswalt, whose stand-up comedy I am an avid fan of. Oswalt plays a nerd named Matt Freehauf who was badly beaten in high school and thus must use a crutch to get around. Coming from opposite ends of the high school social spectrum, both Mavis and Matt haven’t really gotten over their high school experiences, so their relationship is possibly the most interesting thing to watch in the entire movie as they run off to get drunk nightly. At one point during the film, I fantasized about the two of them being in their own movie together where they worked as a team scamming people out of money or some other salacious and illegal activity. Big Fan not withstanding, this is one of Patton Oswalt’s best film roles. His character isn’t overtaken by his comedic sensibilities, though he is quite funny here (but for different reasons that are more personal to the character).
Last of the major characters, Patrick Wilson’s Buddy Slade is typical as, quite simply, an honest married man with a child and the unsuspecting victim of Mavis Gary’s machinations. Yes, that makes Mavis the antagonist of this film. Buddy doesn’t have much depth to his character, but then he isn’t meant to. He’s meant to show the boring normalcy of everything Mavis isn’t and he acts as the McGuffin for the entire film’s premise.
On the topic of soundtrack, where previous Reitman film soundtracks try to goad you into feeling a certain emotion and can seem almost self-indulgent at times, Young Adult feels more honest about itself and doesn’t depend on music as a form of expression. Sure, the movie has a soundtrack, but it’s understated and nuanced, and without intense music cluttering up the various scenes, you’re left to interpret the events that unfold for yourself… which is probably why not everyone is going to like this film—It doesn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
And that’s really what the movie is about. It’s about facing disillusionment. It’s about coming face to face with who you really are and recognizing for the first time that you don’t really like what you see… and things won’t necessarily get better after that either. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say it’s a departure from what we’ve come to expect from other Reitman films… It’s because this film is incredibly brave in its depiction of such a character and because the film makes a lot of other brave choices that I’m able to give it such a high recommendation. I feel that anything truly great isn’t easily accepted by the masses, and that might quite possibly be the case for Young Adult.