Young Adult (Paramount Pictures, R)


film young-adult_75Theron’s character Mavis Gary, a narcissistic writer of a popular series of young adult books, is one of the most intentionally dislikeable main characters in film in recent years.




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Going into the press screening for the new Jason Reitman film Young Adult, I was thinking that Reitman is one of a small number of young American filmmakers with a perfect track record. He’s among an elite group of people like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne of directors who have never made a bad movie. And beyond how reliable he has been, Young Adult has a lot of other talent behind it of whom I’m particularly fond: standup comedian Patton Oswalt has been experiencing Oscar rumblings for his supporting turn for weeks now, and the film re-teams Reitman with his Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody for the first time since that film (which I still think is a fantastic piece of work, despite eventually getting really tired of hearing about it).

Coming out of the press screening of Young Adult, I was deeply disappointed. It isn’t a bad film so there’s no immediate need to revoke Reitman’s Exciting Young Director credentials yet, but it isn’t nearly as good as it seems like it should be. Aforementioned talent aside, it stars Charlize Theron, of whom I’m also a fan, and is a dark comedy, which is a genre I tend to go for. But the reality of the movie didn’t work for me: too many unlikely circumstances, too many jokes that didn’t go much of anywhere, too many instances where the ball is dropped.

That said, I bet a lot of people who see Young Adult aren’t going to like it, but for reasons not similar to my own. The reason why is that the film wants you to not like it to a certain degree. Theron’s character Mavis Gary, a narcissistic writer of a popular series of young adult books (along the lines of the Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars series), is one of the most intentionally dislikeable main characters to pop up in a film in recent years, and the fact that she’s played by an actress as talented as Theron makes the trick work.

The deal here is that Mavis lives in Minneapolis and finds out at the beginning of the film that her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, playing blandly attractive for the umpteenth time), just had his first kid with his wife back in their hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Mavis still holds a candle for Buddy and decides to take a road trip to Mercury to win him back, despite the fact that he’s married and has a newborn. One of the tricks of the movie is that Mavis isn’t exactly washed up, and not trying to relive her glory days—she’s at least moderately successful, crazily pretty with a little work (she looks like Aileen Wuornos in the morning and Britt Ekland in the evening), and has gotten out of her shit-splat hometown (to use a phrase Patton Oswalt coined), which is more than practically anyone else she graduated with can claim.

Not that she hasn’t accumulated problems, too. Among other things, Mavis is now an alcoholic, and the first thing she does upon her return to Mercury is to go to a bar that was popular when she still lived in town. There she runs into Matt Freehauf (Oswalt), who she initially doesn’t recognize, until she’s reminded by his poor physical condition that he was the “Hate Crime Guy” in high school—he was the victim of a brutal beating for being gay, except that the people who beat him were wrong about him being gay. Matt and Mavis form a shaky sort-of friendship (that mostly involves Matt trying to not let Mavis ruin Buddy’s marriage and Mavis drinking all of Matt’s liquor), and the movie moves back and forth between Mavis shamelessly flirting with Buddy under any circumstances and Matt amusingly chastising her for her sociopathic behavior.

Sometimes Young Adult is funny or insightful enough, but its biggest problem is that it never quite lets you suspend your disbelief, which is crucial for a movie like this. Hell, it shouldn’t even be that hard to achieve, as all of the characters in it are very believable, as are the actors. To give an example of the problem: when Mavis is reintroduced to Matt she’s convinced she doesn’t know him. Soon after we find out the thing about him being the Hate Crime Guy, but also that his locker was one down from Mavis’ for years. Cody and Reitman are trying to make a point here—that Mavis is so self-obsessed she didn’t notice the guy next to her—but it just seems hard to believe under the circumstances: Would she really not recognize a guy who was both all over the news and about a foot away from her for years on end? There are a lot of little details like this that are hard to swallow, and it keeps you from ever getting into the movie as much as would serve it.

And sure, Patton’s funny and likeable here, as he always is. Even so, he’s pretty much just playing himself—I’d’ve preferred the Oscar buzz to have come for his leading-man turn in 2009’s Big Fan, which also was maybe not the biggest dramatic stretch, but still a much meatier and more even role than what he gets here. All the same, I’m glad to see him getting more attention for something-or-other. With a book and an excellent comedy album behind him in 2011 alone, he’s blowing up fast, and we’d all benefit from more exposure to his talent. | Pete Timmermann

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