Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody re-team again for dark (ish) comedy drama Young Adult, out here on Friday.
Over the last few years, Diablo Cody has emerged as one of the most divisive figures in the American movie making landscape. Scoring a major win with her first screenplay, 2007′s Juno which saw her go all the way to Oscar gold, she has been a figure whose sparked discussion right from the off with a past history which is certainly unconventional and a writing style which some have described as lacking, with the screenplay for Juno coming under fire from some for relying on “hip” teen speak (something which is commented on in a meta-level within Young Adult), and a tendency to have all the characters sound like they are exactly the same person. Her post-awards glory career has been somewhat mixed though, as while her TV series The United States of Tara achieved some critical acclaim, her follow up feature screenplay Jennifer’s Body contributed to a film which is already largely forgotten only a few years on. For her latest effort, she is again working with Jason Reitman, director of Juno and producer on Jennifer’s Body for this tragi-comic tale which somewhat disappeared on release in the US late last year.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a formerly successful ghost-writer for a series of Young Adult books who is having trouble coming up with a plot for the final installment. She is distracted however by an email celebrating the birth of ex-boyfriend Buddy’s (Patrick Wilson) first child. Remembering how happy she was with him in the years past, she sets of to her home town to steal him away frm his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and finds help/company in the form of former high-school classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), a disabled geek who she never woud have talked to in school.
I have a somewhat mixed history with Jason Reitman;’s films but I think it would be hard to deny that he is able to get winning performances from both established stars, new talent and people who you may not expect to work. Be it George Clooney in Up In The Air, Ellen Page in Juno or Danny McBride in Up In The Air again, he’s certainly an actor’s director and in the case of Young Adult and in this regard, he has succeeded again.
Mavis is an intensely hard to like character. While she has certain aspects to her personality which can be somewhat relatable, the central thrust of the plot will automatically set many against her on a basic moral level, and it certainly did me. However, Charlize Theron rather rocks the shit out of her performance with an icy, detached and also utterly out-of-touch performance which works perfectly. Becoming more the child as the film goes on (with some not so subtle montages to hammer the point home), her regression into a time when she feels she as at her best is very entertaining but it’s also effective in that she plays the way she reacts to other people not with a bitchiness but with a complete lack of awareness of those around her, and this somehow makes what she says and does that bit more palatable.
Matching Theron beat for beat is Patton Oswalt who isn’t exactly a huge name star but manages to hold his own with a likable and affecting performance which completely helps sell the odd relationship the two lead character’s strike up. Seeing these two interact together on screen is already unique enough, at least in a studio mainstream filmmaking sense, but to have them played off each other in both the comedic scenes and the ones with more emotional attachment, is a very welcome treat indeed and by the time their shared arc comes to an end, they feel as if they have had a real relationship of sorts which actually ends in a way that feels incredibly appropriate, if unlikely out of context.
Muddying the waters of the film though is a general sense I’ve had from both Juno and now Young Adult in that it does feel like when Cody and Reitman get together, they unleash the worst “snarky” natures of each other. By the time Young Adult ended, I was rather annoyed as there is a fair bit of good stuff here narratively and in the screenplay but it’s overwhelmed by a nagging feeling of the need to impress, to sand out and to say “look at me” just like Mavis basically does throughout the entire film. Without wanting to get into spoilers, there are certain developments in the third act which at one minute had me very encouraged with how things were going to go from that point, but then are ruined a few minutes later by a scene which renders virtually the entire runtime up to that moment utterly pointless. Say what you will about the merits of a film but when you leave the cinema asking yourself “just what was the point of that then?”, it’s going to be a huge mark against the entire endeavour.
It’s not only in this aspect where the screenplay lets itself down though as Patrick Wilson is sunk by a character who is at best a bit clueless and at worst downright irresponsible, both in how he treats Mavis but also his wife. His character is an inconsistent blur of friendliness and mild contempt who just doesn’t ever feel all that “real”, and unlike Theron, who does get the lion’s share of screentime in fairness, Wilson is never really given the chance to paint the character with enough of his on flavour to make him a more three-dimensional contribution, and when his character is essentially the crux of the narrative this just isn’t really good enough.
As negative as this review has sounded though, it’s only really because as with all of Cody’s work, there is strong stuff here with quite a few laugh out loud moments throughout and a paciness to the material which pleased me throughout. Reitman also does well with what he has on offer, allowing Theron and Oswalt time in their scenes to really riff and conjur up an odd air which works well in bringing just a tad bit of emotion to an otherwise mechanical and “oh-so-clever” ending.
In all, if you’re so-inclined, Young Adult will be a decent enough watch for you though mileage will vary as to how you enjoy it based largely on how your reading of the third act effects the rest of the film for you. For me it was a lot and hence the star rating above but in Theron and Oswalt, the film has two MVP’s who make it worth 93 minutes of your time. Just don’t be surprised if you leave the cinema unsatisfied.