December 25, 2011

Young Adult (12/25/2011)

Lettergrade: D

I found myself intrigued during most of Young Adult... I wasn't quite enjoying it yet, but had the feeling during much of the film that it was about to get good. Eventually, a really good scene did arrive, but then the movie itself ended just a few awkward scenes later. As I sat there, absorbing the shock of the credits rolling so unexpectedly, I came to the conclusion that this is more like the rough outline of a general idea of a concept for a movie that never quite came together. It's pretty mean-spirited, and cynical, and shallow, and ultimately it doesn't seem to really be about anything other than a general feeling that some people get in their 30s, where you might wonder about past significant others and maybe imagine what life could have been if you had stayed together, made different choices, and gone in different directions than you ultimately did.

Charleze Theron is an incredibly narcissistic divorced, depressive alcoholic who moved off to Minneapolis and became the ghost writer of a once-popular series of books for teenagers. When she gets an announcement declaring the birth of her high school / college-ish ex-boyfriend's baby, she's convinced that he must be desperately unhappy and goes back to her home town upstate in order to steal him away and take him to the city.

Not long after arriving, she runs into a old classmate she barely remembers (played by Patton Oswalt) in a bar. He was beaten up by some jocks who thought he was gay back during senior year, and has a permanent disability as a result. She makes him her confidant, and the two become sad-sack drinking buddies. As Theron continues to pursue her old flame, Oswalt is the only one who will be direct about the extreme wrongness of what she's trying to do.

The symmetry of both Theron and Oswalt being heavily damaged people (one physically, one emotionally) couldn't be thicker. I don't have a problem with that: Their scenes are the most engaging parts of what looked to be a very promising movie for a while there, and they're memorable. What I do have a problem with is the flippant way in which the movie comes to a close. I try to not talk about details that ruin the movie-going experience for those who haven't seen the film yet on this blog, but there's no way around it with this one as the ending is the main reason I feel the whole thing doesn't work at all. I'll try to avoid specifics, but you should probably turn back now if you want to wait and see it for yourself.

Still with me?

Okay, so Theron's Mavis finally arrives at the big blow-up scene that we knew was probably inevitable as soon as the picture started. And it's a great scene: Well acted, electric tension, uncomfortable, emotional… After that, Mavis seems to be on the verge of some kind of self-realization, but then the film cuts that short and she gets a hearty does of reinforcement instead. As the picture ends, we have every indication that she's learned nothing from her experiences during the movie, and she's probably just going to go on as she was.

My wife and I talked about that a bit afterward, and we agreed that the movie is probably right-on in terms of what people like Mavis are really like and how such a person might actually react when faced with the kind of scenario that we see here. I understand that. I just strongly feel that the way in which the picture handles it is kind of an insulting, cheap way to end the story, and suddenly makes it feel like your time has been wasted for the last 100 minutes or so.

On some level, I admired that the movie was going waaaaay against expectation and perhaps tapping into something a little more truthful at the same time. On another level, it seemed that whatever those intriguing scenes between Oswalt and Theron were establishing simply got flushed down the toilet at the end for the sake of a joke or a surprise, neither of which were worth the damage.

I'm tempted to think that the movie might be screenwriter Diablo Cody's dark fantasy of what happens to popular pretty girls 10 - 15 years after high school or so, when most people not caught up in bullshit city life tend to settle into nice families and quiet lives, despite the fact that they never went off and "did something," the way they maybe talked about before. I'm not convinced, though, that that's the right way to read the movie. Of course, that's not Cody's own story... she grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to the University of Iowa (where we had a few classes together) before living in Minneapolis for a bit. She wrote her memoir, Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper, when she was 22, starting a chain of events that led to her winning an Academy Award for Juno when she was 28. Is Mavis meant to be a more ugly version of what she might have become under different circumstances?

By contrast, director Jason Reitman grew up the son of a very successful filmmaker during the 80s (where father Ivan directed Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins, among others), and spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Jason debuted as a director with 2005's highly entertaining Thank You For Smoking before shooting Cody's Juno screenplay in 2007. I liked the guy a lot for a while there, but was really left cold by his previous movie, 2009's Up In The Air, which felt oddly insincere and kinda like it was based on empty, meaningless platitudes rather than substance on par with his earlier two films. He came off as kinda douchy and entitled in a KCRW interview that aired a few times that winter as well, and the one-two punch has kept me wondering if he's really got something he wants to say as a filmmaker or if he's simply smart enough to know what award-winning movies are kinda supposed to be like.

But anyway, this is all a long way of saying that Cody knows midwestern towns like the one in Young Adult quite well, I'd imagine, but I'm not sure what to make of Mavis's (and Reitman's) apparent disdain for practically everything about this one. Again, I'm kind of sensing an aversion from the filmmakers toward falling into the Hollywood cliché of Mavis returning to her hometown leading to some kind of grand revelation about what's most important in life. She's fairly awful through and through and pretty much irredeemable. I appreciate that the movie doesn't run such a tired old play from the rom-com playbook, but if Mavis learns nothing from her self-destructive behavior, and her main conclusion at the end is that her home-town is a gaping shithole which is better off in her rearview mirror... what, exactly, makes this story worth telling at all?

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