Young Adult features people talking like actual human beings anywhere in the world really talk, using words that exist. In this respect, it represents a tremendous leap forward for Diablo Cody, who managed back in 2007 to ruin her smart, nervy script for Juno by forcing some of the most unattractive turns of phrase in the history of English language screenwriting into the characters' mouths (and managed to ruin Jennifer's Body by writing Jennifer's Body, but enough people have beat up on that film already). Alas! for this one step forward, Young Adult takes an equally precipitous step back in telling a story that wants, very badly, to be even nervier, but doesn't have anything resembling the structure or character insight of Juno and simply does not come together at all, despite having a rock-solid concept behind it: let's make a black comedy about a selfish, mean-spirited woman who gets plenty of chances to confront herself and realise what an acidic bitch she is, and then not ever actually redeem her.
This idea is ballsy and awesome, and comic misanthropy when it's done right is a rare treat; but it isn't done right here. For many reasons, although most of them have to do with tone, and in this regard I'm not entirely sure that the failings of Young Adult are primarily Cody's doing. In fact, it's a lot easier to blame Jason Reitman, who experiences with this film a rather spectacular artistic blow-out. In his previous films, Thank You For Smoking (which I didn't especially like), the aforementioned Juno (which I did, but not for its direction), and Up in the Air (which I hated) he at least demonstrated a clean, unchallenging aesthetic that had all the bleary-eyed competence of a workaday filmmaker of the classic mold, the kind who takes it as his job to present a story crisply and directly, guiding the actors but not bullying and looking for nothing more profound of the visuals than that they stay out of the way. This is not true of Young Adult - the lack of visual profundity is still very much there, but not the dull competence; in fact, whenever he actively seems to be making a creative choice, rather than simply coasting on 80 years of American sync-sound filmmaking, that choice is the wrong one. Entire scenes and locations that consist of nothing but a single insert shot; jump cuts in places where there is nothing gained by it, except that the reality of the moment is irrevocably damaged (maybe this is the fault of editor Dana E. Glauberman, but still, shame on Reitman for letting her do it); needlessly weird close-ups designed to do nothing but confirm that yep, the gorgeous Charlize Theron still looks pretty damn gorgeous even when she's not wearing make-up (worse yet: she's wearing make-up specifically designed to make her look "normal", but comes off like a supermodel on her third day of not sleeping). And worst of all, he strangles the film's tone - strangles it to death in its crib, right in front of our eyes. More than once, a scene or just an isolated joke wandered into view, and my response would be that I ought to find it funny, and in fact I couldn't figure out why it wasn't funny, and by the end the cumulative mass of such incidents had answered for itself: this is a black comedy with one single solitary scene that is actively bitter and dark and "real" if you don't actually know how people act, a big climactic confrontation that reveals the acrid, tragic edge to the rest of the film, and Reitman directs the film as if it was all that scene; which not only stomps the comedy to death, it also robs that scene of its sting, and turns it into an ungainly absurdity that is readily the least effective part of the whole movie, rather than the slap to the face that sets the whole thing off.
But anyway: Young Adult. A double-edged title, because the 37-year-old protagonist isn't by any means a young adult, but she acts with the cruel egotism of a spoiled teenager; in addition, she is one of the writers of a series of YA novellas set in the soap-operatic world of Waverly Prep School, a character detail which gets used in a number of thoughtfully metaphorical ways, all of them half-finished by a script that seems wildly disinterested in doing much exploring into the corners of its own world (so, okay, there are some things I can't blame on Reitman). This woman is Mavis Gary (Theron), a high-functioning alcoholic on the verge of becoming a low-functioning alcoholic when she gets an e-mail from her wee little hometown in Minnesota: her high school boyfriend, the love of her life, has just become a father. Taking this as a sign that he is obviously being crushed by the provincial reality of small-town in the upper Midwest, Mavis immediately heads north with her yappy lapdog and a bullshit story about real estate speculation. The guileless inhabitants of the town buy her story hook line and sinker, including new daddy and ex-flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, playing the most Patrick Wilsony role of his career); the sole exception is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was beaten near to death by some homophobes back in high school in despite of the fact that he was not actually gay, and has just the combination of misery and resentment to see the worst in people generally, and thus immediately grasps that Mavis is a psycho on a family-busting mission.
There's a good movie in there; there's a great movie in there, although I don't know what modern filmmaker would be likely to find it. But let's stick with the good movie, which I take to be a brittle comedy that exults in Mavis's unapologetic meanness and gives us the voyeuristic thrill of identifying with her rants and lies while still being absolutely horrified by it; it is less likely that a good movie could have come of the bits and pieces of Young Adult that really dig in and grind us into just how broken Mavis has become, though it's not impossible. A good movie certainly has not come of Reitman and Cody's wildly superficial treatment of the second of these two ideas, mixed with Reitman's refusal to actual play up the gags of the first idea. In particular, it hobbles poor Charlize Theron, who really does give the best performance of this character that she probably could have, given the direction she apparently received; her Mavis is of a piece with the rest of the film, anyway, and it's just not interesting or fun, and a pitch black comic character study needs to be at least one of those things.
The result is a mishmash that is bleak as hell, but too shallow to make us feel it; none of the characters besides Mavis is treated with any kind of consistency ("let's criticise this woman for mocking the small town, and then mock the shit out of it ourselves!" cries Cody's messy, smug third act; nor do the supporting characters get much depth from Reitman's inability to handle more than one actor at a time) and so they don't seem real enough for us to really care what happens to them or why, while Mavis herself is just one big pulled punch. She's well and truly nasty - if the script did nothing besides refuse to sand the hard edges off of her even at the end, I would be incapable of disliking it - but without wit to make her appealing, and without any kind of moral context to make her tragic. So much of the film wants to work, but it becomes a complete farrago in the execution, and that's far more upsetting than if it had just been bad.
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