Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Grown Up "Young Adult"

More than one movie critic has noted that the last ten to fifteen years of film comedies have centered around the exploration of the immature male psyche, the man-child characters embodied by Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler. In 2011, women finally began to catch up, appearing in movies with loser heroines like "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," and "Young Adult." The humor was crass and lewd, and the leading ladies, though usually extremely attractive, were otherwise a mess. "Young Adult," features the second collaboration of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who did "Juno" together, but the best thing about the movie, without a doubt, is the performance of Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary.

Mavis is a thirty-seven year old divorcee who ghostwrites a series of young adult novels. She drinks too much, watches too much reality television, and dresses like a college student cramming for finals. One day she receives a birth announcement from her ex-high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who have just had a new baby daughter. Mavis, whose happiest times were with Buddy, is spurred to reconnect. So she leaves the big city, in this case Minneapolis, for a trip back to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota. As she spends the next few days plotting how to win Buddy back, she finds an unusual ally in another old classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was beneath her notice in high school, but now provides a welcome listening ear.

No doubt some viewers will enjoy watching Mavis out of schadenfreude. She was not only one of the popular girls in high school, but one of those totally self-centered, entitled, unpleasant mean girls with a poison tongue, who made school so hellish for many of those around her. Now she's a wreck, made all the more pitiful by the fact that she so stubbornly clings to the persona of the sarcastic, cooler-than-thou queen bee. Mavis isn't stupid and she isn't without redeeming qualities, but you get the sense that her bad behavior has been indulged and enabled for so long, her values are totally out of whack. In the hands of another actress, Mavis would probably be unbearable, but Charlize Theron is great at exhibiting the mannerisms of a spoiled seventeen year old trapped in a grown woman's body, without turning her into a caricature. She's self-conscious and oblivious at the same time, does a terrible job of hiding anything from anyone, and is at her funniest when she's sulking.

It's fun to watch Mavis make outrageous comments, take advantage of other people's hospitality, and roll her eyes whenever someone mentions how adorable the new baby is. However, there's always the uneasy feeling that she really shouldn't be getting away with as much as she seems to, and Cody's script makes that pay off in a big way. I thought that there were a couple of elements that were unnecessary, like Mavis narrating excerpts from her book-in-progress which are thinly disguised commentary on her own situation, but otherwise I really enjoyed the writing. The humor is sharp, well-observed, and often very, very mean. There's a sense that Cody is making fun of her own precocious teenage characters, transplanting a lot of the same qualities to a grown woman and showing us how bad the fit is.

I also enjoyed Matt Freehauf, the former nerd who didn't go out and conquer the world, but stayed a small town, garage-dwelling underachiever, wrapped up in his own hobbies and disappointments. I've always liked Patton Oswalt, who is not the kind of performer who fits into the mold of a conventional leading man, but is so good when he does get a decent, interesting part like this. I liked Matt more and more as the story went on, until I was looking forward to each subsequent appearance. Unlike the convenient love interests who always seem to pop up in these homecoming movies, Matt is a solid, relatable guy, who is immediately likable. Mavis becomes more sympathetic the more the two connect over bad memories and copious amounts of liquor.

However, I want to emphasize that "Young Adult" is in no way a typical romantic comedy. The movie is far too shrewd for that. While Cody and Reitman largely resist the urge to subvert or send up common romance cliches in an obvious manner, their characters insistently refuse to act against their own natures to satisfy any of the usual audience expectations. This may frustrate some, but I was very happy to have a movie about people behaving badly that neither excuses their actions nor tries to tack on some artificial redemption in the end. The Mavis Garys of the world are never so easy to get rid of, and if we're lucky, they'll be sharing the screen with their male counterparts in many more movies to come.

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