YOUNG ADULT: Worth A Ticket – Theron + Oswalt = The Real Thing
Charlize Theron plays the hell out of her character Mavis Gary in the new YOUNG ADULT. Theron has had a curious Hollywood career, with the usual big-budget flops (remember Aeon Flux?) mixed with a clearly wholehearted commitment to difficult, independent projects like The Road, The Burning Plain, Sleepwalking (which she also produced) and In the Valley of Elah. She’s been shown industry respect with an Oscar, of course, but in Monster she was laden with the kind of heavy make-up and prosthetics that make the Academy genuflect reflexively. In Young Adult it feels like Theron’s got the role, written and directed by Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman of Juno fame, that she’s spent years trying to find, one in which she’s still recognizably Charlize Theron but in a way that’s darker and more acerbic than her natural looks and the system have allowed her to be before.
Theron is superb, and so is Patton Oswalt in a smaller role. Young Adult as a whole, however, is more problematic. The movie’s narrative line is very simple: Mavis is a native (she’d consider herself a survivor) of the small Minnesota town of Mercury; she now lives in Minneapolis. She was the mean girl cheerleader who dated the quarterback in high school, and she considers herself infinitely superior to those she left behind, although really now that she’s in her mid-thirties, she’s deeply unhappy if she’d only admit it to herself: barely successful as a ghost-writer for a teen romance book franchise, a too-heavy drinker, and a habitue of the kind of anonymous sex that she seems to enjoy only slightly more than Michael Fassbender does in Shame. She decides to go back home to relive the triumphs of her youth by taking back her old beau Buddy (Patrick Wilson), despite the inconvenient fact that he’s married and a brand-new dad.
Young Adult is the story of Mavis’ time back in Mercury, her relentless delusions and assortment of self-destructive acts. It’s immediately apparent to everyone except Mavis herself that Buddy is blissfully happy with wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and their baby, and not interested in being more than old-pal polite to Mavis. On some level, Mavis is aware of this, but Theron does a beautiful job of digging into Mavis’ hard core of denial. Mavis does manage to make an old-new friend: Matt (Oswalt), another drinker who’s a lot more clear-eyed about his own problems (he was severely beaten back when he was beneath Mavis’ contempt as a loser teen), but despite his claimed contentment with the life he’s made for himself, he still has his own fantasies about Mavis seeing him as more than a drinking companion.
As great as it is to watch Theron and Oswalt bounce off each other in their scenes together, ultimately the problem with Young Adult is that it has nowhere to go. The other characters are mere shadows (Buddy doesn’t experience even a flicker of temptation no matter how much Mavis tries to seduce him), and the movie isn’t going to let Mavis have any kind of epiphany, so she just keeps humiliating herself over and over, keeping her head inside the bubble where her actions make sense.
It’s interesting that some of our pop culture arbiters, notably the NY Times, insist on not only appreciating Young Adult for its real qualities, but overpraising it as more than it is. This is, I think, the result of the odd aftereffects of the great success of Juno. Juno has turned out to be one of those movies that come along every few years (other recent examples are Cider House Rules, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago) that get generally favorable reviews and awards attention, make lots of money… yet somehow leave a bad aftertaste in critical mouths, such that the film’s makers subsequently have to prove themselves better than those movies suggested. Jason Reitman escaped the worst of this by doing something very different with Up In the Air, but following up with the high-school flop Jennifer’s Body doomed Diablo Cody–now the success of her projects is judged by how much they differ from Juno. (No smug one-liners? Check. No happy ending? Check. No likable protagonist? Check.)
Ironically, although Young Adult is being praised for dodging romantic-comedy cliches, it falls right into plenty that are just as hoary and familiar. The big-city guy or gal acting all superior to the small-towners, who it turns out are the ones possessing real wisdom and grace–that’s a staple that goes back to old-time westerns. There’s even a DNA strand of the theme that runs from Doc Hollywood to Northern Exposure to the current Hart of Dixie. The fact that Mavis doesn’t recognize (or more accurately refuses to openly acknowledge) that this is the case doesn’t change the fact that it’s made utterly clear to the audience. And the character of Matt? The semi-drunken, more or less asexual, reliable if sarcastic ear to the blowzy heroine’s troubles? The only thing keeping him from being a cliche of the “gay best friend” is that the whole town thinks Matt is gay but he really isn’t. (The misconception that Patton Oswalt is gay seems like a stretch, but whatever.) The seemingly glamorous arrival in town who really turns out to be close to the skids? Practically out of the Tennessee Williams playbook.
It doesn’t help that although the movie is super-polished (Reitman uses his usual technical team of cinematographer Eric Steelberg, composer Rolfe Kent, and editor Dana Glauberman), the actors besides Theron and Oswalt have little to do. Wilson is a vaguely pleasant presence, and Reaser is less interesting than she seems meant to be (her new-mom character is in a band), while Mary Beth Hurt and Jill Eikenberry provide elder insight. They’re all so collectively nice that they might as well be made of dough.
Young Adult is a showpiece for 2 great performances, but as a film it lacks both the scope of a novel and the perceptiveness of a great short story; it’s a sketch that, like its heroine, refuses adamantly to delve beyond easy surfaces.