Sunday, December 2, 2012

Theron & Oswalt Shine in the Darkly Comic "Young Adult"

In director Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011), Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the ghostwriter of a popular series of YA novels. She’s recently divorced, and feels unfulfilled romantically and personally. Her book series is coming to an end after a long & successful run. She receives an invitation from Buddy Slade, an old high school flame, to his new baby’s shower. Mavis decides to head to her hometown and win him back. Despite the fact that he’s married and has a child, she convinces herself that everything that was wrong with her life happened after her relationship with Buddy (Patrick Wilson) ended.  After all, she was the queen of her high school; what could have gone so terribly wrong with her life?

When Mavis arrives, she reconnects with Matt Frehauf (Patton Oswalt), a classmate who was the victim of a horrific attack during their high school years. He’s been dealing with his own demons in the years since they graduated. The two lost souls befriend each other, and Matt tries to be a sort of conscience & sounding board for Mavis, but with little success. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. As Mavis’s plan to steal Buddy away from his wife & baby moves forward, she continues to delude herself that it will actually work, and that he feels the same way. In fact, she becomes almost childishly deluded about Buddy returning her feelings for him.

The film reunites director Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the team behind Juno. This movie has some of the tart humor and sharp dialogue of that 2007 hit. But Juno’s darker tones were lightened with a little bit of heart; there’s a lot less of that here. The main problem is Theron’s character; she's unlikable, that you can’t relate to her. Her former beau is a nice guy, with a loving wife and a new baby. Who’s going to cheer for her to break that marriage up? As Mavis encounters other people from her past (who have a very different view of her than how she perceives herself) her self-delusion only seems to strengthen, along with her resolve to steal Buddy away from his family.

By the time we see some shadings to Mavis, it’s almost too late, though Theron hits it out of the park in a bravura scene toward the end of the film. It's so raw it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. There’s also a telling scene between Mavis & her parents, and an odd encounter between Mavis & Matt’s sister Sandra that attempts to point toward some redemption for her. However, it ultimately seems to end up reinforcing our feelings about the character. And (without being too spoiler-y) there’s definitely a scene I wanted to see between Oswalt & Theron’s characters that just isn’t there. Cody’s script has some great lines & good moments, but I can’t help feeling that some of the bigger questions remain unresolved. There are some definite flaws amidst the good points in the story.

Reitman has worked wonders with tough material before, in Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Up in The Air (2009), and his direction is pretty solid here, but this movie just seems stuck in a very dark place. There’s some great acting here, especially from Theron & Oswalt, as two damaged people who can’t seem to escape their self-made prisons. I almost wished the movie had focused solely on their relationship. I’m not saying everything has to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, or that every ending has to be happy. I can enjoy a story with darker themes and no easy answers, but Young Adult left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. Judge for yourself; the movie is worth a look for some excellent performances and interesting writing, but it's not quite the comedy it's trailers & advertising indicated. The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download.

Here's a link to the film's trailer: A special shout out to the movie for prominently using one of my favorite power pop tunes, "The Concept" by Teenage Fanclub, and there are some other great music choices in the film. An additional trivia note; screenwriter Cody is a huge fan of the well-remembered YA series Sweet Valley High and is trying to get a film version of the those books off the ground; that's likely the reason for Theron's occupation in the film.

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