Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: "Young Adult"

Over the course of his first three films, Jason Reitman explored three very different protagonists. First there was the charming big tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking, then the whip-smart pregnant teen in Juno, and finally the loner traveling corporate man in Up in the Air. Whatever their considerable differences, they at least shared one common trait, albeit in varying degrees: likeability. Sure, Eckhart's role in Smoking may be that of a man who sells poison, but by the story's end, he was a sympathetic character. This likeability, however, is where Reitman makes his biggest departure in his fourth film, Young Adult, which might feature the year's stand-out unlikeable protagonist (unless you're an avid hater of Margaret Thatcher and are still seething over the trailer for The Iron Lady).

Reuniting with Juno scribe Diablo Cody, Reitman's latest finds him returning to a female subject to scrutinize. She's Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a ghost writer for a series of Gossip Girl-esque young adult novels that is about to reach its end. Upon receiving an email that her old flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had their first child, Mavis returns to her tiny hometown with the delusional hope that she can win Buddy back because they're "meant to be together."

As with Up in the Air, Reitman uses the opening sequence to (almost wordlessly) establish Mavis within the confines of her Minneapolis apartment. She drinks, has Diet Coke for breakfast, and is accustomed to one night stands. But something's different here, and not exactly in a good way. The opening act of Young Adult is missing a sharpness, both in writing and in editing that made Up in the Air demand our attention so immediately. Though Cody's screenplay is generally devoid of the hipster-y quotability of Juno, the flip side of this is that it often feels like a first draft. The result is that the first chunk of the story often feels burdened with weird moments filled with nothing but dead air. This may be an attempt to show how empty and aimless Mavis' life is, but the execution left me feeling more like it was simply a usually on-point director missing his mark.

That the film gets off to such a rocky start is a shame, because Theron is clearly giving the role her all, even when the script feels like giving her only the thinnest of "nasty bitch" material to work with. The constant looks of emptiness and disgust Theron throws around should provide a constant jolt of dark humor, but more often then not they feel like wasted opportunities, because the character is a bitch simply because, well, she just is, okay???. But unlike, say, Shame, which never explored the source of Brandon's addiction, Young Adult never gives Mavis enough of an arc to make the time spent with the character feel fully earned. One could argue that she has something of a realization about how rotten she is, but it's not enough to make a solid case that she really changes, or will change. And if Mavis' stagnation is supposed to somehow be the point, Cody seems unconcerned with sharpening the point of the whole piece.

But even though the point may not quite be there, there's at least some material that's totally worth it. The film isn't exactly the dark comedy it's billed as (though it's dark), but a few moments do earn a decent, wicked laugh. As the story (which clocks in at a clean 90 minutes) moves through its acts, the dead air starts to fade away, and the character interactions feel better distilled, devoid of unintentional awkwardness or narrative flab. Largely, this is due to Theron's work as Mavis, which is so committed that you wish Cody and Reitman had taken a few months to really punch up the script so that the journey would be one that people recommend despite the protagonist's unlikeability. Instead, Young Adult leaves us with a decent enough film with a strong performance at its core. The work from other cast members, like Patton Oswalt, Wilson, and Collette Wolfe, is engaging, but not enough to really make a mark. The film is All About Mavis, but the problem is that Cody hasn't given the role quite enough meat, and the film suffers because of it, even though portions feel right on target. Young Adult is clearly meant to be an uncomfortable, darkly funny film, but at the end of the day it's neither uncomfortable nor darkly funny enough to really justify the journey it takes us on.

Grade: B-

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