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Entries in Young Adult [2011] (1)

Saturday
Dec172011

Young Adult (2011)

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Kentacohuts)

Walking out of Young Adult, I heard two high school girls complaining. Their conversation began with an annoyed, "Was that supposed to be, like, an indie film or something?" and devolved into a series of confused whining sounds that, I suppose, passes for communication in younger circles (think Louis C.K. impersonating bar hotties).

This made me happier than you can imagine--happier, even, than the movie itself. Like my fellow audience members, I went in expecting Juno 2. I emerged with the proud feeling of having witnessed the fruits of Diablo Cody's first successful screenplay and Jason Reitman's first solid movie.

Yes, I'm one of those people: the handful who thought Juno and Jennifer's Body were clumsy, desperate attempts to capture a youth culture that had long since passed the author by. I also thought Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air were terrific premises bogged down by unwarranted seriousness and unwarranted silliness, respectively. This cluster of films represents, to me, the work of this generation's two most overrated talents.

I should say, "represented", because I finally understand what all the fuss is about. Young Adult is both artists' most mature and entertaining work, and it's sure to piss off anyone who goes to see it based on the trailer. While this is being sold as Charlize Theron's drunken misadventures in trying to win back her high school boyfriend from the clutches of marriage and fatherhood, the movie is a serious look at how living in the past can cripple one's ability to have a future.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, the ghost-writer of a once-successful series of young-adult novels concerning the life and times of privileged high-schoolers. While struggling to begin the last book, she receives a birth announcement from her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Divorced, drunk, and depressed, Mavis heads from the "big city" of Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, determined to recapture the romance and magic of her glory days. After settling into a hotel, Mavis heads to a bar where she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who's still as geeky as Mavis is goddess-y.

Over drinks, Mavis confides in Matt, spilling her plans to convince Buddy that his wife and kid will be just fine without him. Matt is sufficiently horrified and spends the rest of the film acting as both confidante and ill-at-ease shoulder-angel, futilely nudging her away from being a home-wrecker. But Mavis presses on, shedding the Diet Coke-accessorized, puffy-eyes-and-sweat-pants look for the plucked, spritzed, and mani-pedi-ed armor of a driven seductress. Buddy, she thinks, doesn't have a chance.

But he does have a wife, and a terrific one at that. Beth (the charming and understated Elizabeth Reaser) is a hip, loving mother who plays drums in a bar-band called Nipple Confusion with other new moms. Buddy is clearly in love with her and in love with being a dad--facts that Mavis refuses to accept. This plot point alone would be enough to make Young Adult worthwhile. Most movies of this kind (including Juno) introduce phony back-doors to the central love triangle; I'd fully expected for Buddy to be at least tempted by Mavis' advances and relentless critiques of suburban malaise; I'd also expected Beth to turn out to be an unsympathetic character, thus giving the audience a reason to cheer on Buddy's infidelity--or at least to understand it--and paint Mavis as a damaged hero.

In a bold and mature move, Cody paints Mavis into a corner, forcing her to deal with the bitterness and layers of facade she's constructed over the decades. The double-whammy occurs during a climactic scene where Mavis has coffee with Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe). The shy girl who'd looked up to Mavis in high school is now a shy nurse in a nowhere town who dreams of being rescued. Her astute deconstruction of Mercury and the small, pathetic lives of its inhabitants provides Mavis with the hammer to break down the last barrier to her future. With a triumphant "Fuck Mercury!" she packs up her car and begins anew.

The lesson here isn't that the suburbs are torturously lame. In fact, with the exception of Sandra (and, to a certain extent, Matt), everyone in Mercury seems content to live quiet lives surrounded by family and friends. The beautiful and popular Mavis always felt like she was meant for better things. She moved to a bigger city and launched a writing career, but stalled in Minneapolis and got lured by money and convenience into writing 178 books about high school. Like the people she despises most in the world, Mavis settled--just on a slightly larger scale, and without the benefit of anyone to share her life with. By the time the credits roll, we're left feeling that maybe she'll graduate to an even bigger city and use her creativity to write more satisfying material--but, true to character, it's only a feeling.

Young Adult is a brilliant film on every level. Cody shows more restraint than ever, favoring spirited dialogue delivered by smart characters over quip-heavy snark from precocious teens (thus adding potency to the handful of pop-cult references* that inevitably spring up). For his part, the best part of Reitman's direction is that he stays out of the story's way. Most of his films suffer, I think, from "Look at How Socially Aware I Am" syndrome, but this movie's subject matter lends itself to a more stripped-down, intimate approach. I love the opening credits, by the way, which shows the inner workings of the cassette player in Mavis' car during the drive to Mercury. In a clever bit of thematic irony, new images of the machinery fade into each other even as Mavis rewinds the tape to play the same song over and over and over again.

But the real champions here are Theron and Oswalt. Theron hasn't been as visible in the last few years, and Young Adult is a touching reminder of how great an actress she can be. Though Mavis is a mostly unsympathetic character, she's played as a wildly insecure person grasping at her cracking, protective persona. None of this would matter if Theron weren't utterly convincing as a loser. Typically, when beautiful, famous actresses dress down for a part that will inevitably lead to a glamorous transformation, we can still see that there's a gorgeous woman underneath. I didn't think of Mavis Gary as Charlize Theron for a second; she goes full-schlub here in demeanor and appearance.

And Patton Oswalt continues to impress in roles that are more dramatic than comedic. Big Fan was one of my favorite films of 2009, and he's a big reason that Young Adult will likely make this year's list. He brings a poetic, defeated pathos to the whiskey-brewing, action-figure-modifying Matt, whose inability to move on from a high school tragedy mirrors Mavis' own struggle. Like most of the film's humor, Oswalt's job as comic relief skews to the angry and relatable. He and Theron make for the year's oddest but most perfect movie duo, and I could easily have watched three hours of their characters just chatting about their problems over drinks.

Young Adult reminds me of another similarly themed feature from earlier this year, Bad Teacher. Its protagonist was also an attractive, devious gold-digger of sorts, but the movie gave no indication as to why the audience should care about her happiness. Packed with cheap jokes and bawdy cartoon characters, it dragged on for way too long while saying absolutely nothing. Honestly, I'd expected as much from this movie, and am elated to report that I was very, very wrong. Young Adult has the look, cast, and plot of a mainstream comedy but the battered, beating heart of, like, an indie film.

*Like the "Kentacohut" of this review's title--FYI, that's the hip abbreviation for KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combination restaurants.