Young Adult (2011)
Not my favorite Reitman effort, but damn is it wicked.
Young Adult is about a thirty-something divorcee who spends her nights getting blackout drunk with random one-night stands and her days ghostwriting the final entry in a once-popular series of young adult novels. One day, she receives a mass email from her high school sweetheart announcing the birth of his first child. Instead of sending it to the Trash Bin like a normal person, she takes it as a sign and heads back to her podunk hometown for the first time in forever. When she gets there, she winds up befriending the fat geek she ignored all throughout high school, and soon after begins her conquest to win back her old flame from his new wife and kid.
Remember how warm and fuzzy you felt the last time Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody teamed up for Juno? Even I wanted to get pregnant after that movie. Well imagine Juno grew up and spent the next 20 years drowning her sorrows in reality TV and Maker’s Mark, wishing every day that she’d kept the baby and stuck it out with Paulie Bleeker (who’s now shacked up with some chick in a band.) That’s our young adult, Mavis Gary, and she is a freakin’ mess. For a film making duo that stole our hearts four years ago, I wasn’t expecting them to give ’em back four years later looking like ash trays, but whether you like or loathe this movie is ultimately dependent on what you make of Mavis.
I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with characters to compare her to, and as much I like to think that Kenny Powers, Regina George, and Travis Bickle are all fitting candidates, Mavis is one-of-a-kind. When we first meet her, there ain’t much to write home about. Depressing, pathetic, washed-up, irresponsible, unhealthy, unapologetic – all wonderful adjectives to sum her up in a nutshell. Not the kind of person you’d like to spend thirteen bucks and 94 minutes on, although there is something amusing about the rose-colored glasses she wears, her morning-after routine that starts with chugging Diet Coke from the liter, and the way she’s so convinced that everyone around her are the ones stuck in a dead-end. The only thing she isn’t cynical about is her own selfish ambitions, yet as much as you can’t root for her in the slightest, I still had a hard time hating her. I just felt bad for her.
Maybe it’s that I never had a high school sweetheart to pine over during my mid-life crisis that I still haven’t reached, and that I don’t have a void in my life that can only be filled with a time machine. The only thing about Mavis I can relate to is that I knew girls like her in college and those were girls I wanted nothing to do with. Her unlikely confidante who comes in the form of Patton Oswalt is an entirely different matter though. Aside from my wholehearted belief that Patton Oswalt is a goddamn genius as both a comedian and human being, he’s perfectly cast and absolutely great as Matt Freehauf, the anti-Mavis from top to bottom. Granted, his character’s circumstances and reasonable outlook on life make him a whole lot easier to feel for and care about, but this story needs Matt and his push-and-pull with Mavis is one of the best things it has going for it. Being a geek, I saw a lot more of myself in Matt than in Mavis, and without him around, this prima donna would have been too much to bear.
Man, I have no idea why Patton Oswalt isn’t in more movies. Someone needs to fix that.
And Charlize Theron is unsurprisingly awesome as Mavis. Look, if you had a recurring role on Arrested Development, you’re already set for life in the awesome department, but that’s beside the point. It’s one thing to look the role of a former prom queen who still probably mentions it on her resume’, it’s another thing to sell it and cut loose as the totally misguided man-eater that Mavis Gary is. Being no stranger to playing a self-destructive gal, Theron throws herself down the spiral and does a bang-up job of keeping Mavis from coming off as a grown-up “plastic.” Still a bit confused as to how a boozehound like Mavis can eat fast food for every meal, barely exercise, and still look like Charlize Theron, but again, beside the point.
Also nice to see Patrick Wilson in a role that doesn’t have him looking like a door-greeter at Abercrombie & Fitch.
But here’s the thing: for 95% of the movie, I dug Mavis Gary as the highly atypical character that she is and could refrain from passing judgment because there’s a lot more going on below the surface than she’d care to have anyone know. But then comes a morning-after heart-to-heart towards the end of the movie between her and Matt’s sister, played by Collette Wolfe. By this time, Mavis’ plans have gone about the way you already think they’ll go, and the chat starts out sweetly enough with Matt’s sister encouraging Mavis to be proud of who she is and what she’s accomplished. This could have been a turning point for both Mavis and the tone of the story as a whole, but instead Mavis responds to Matt’s sister with, “You know what? You’re right! Thanks a mil and go fuck yourself!” The more I keep thinking about the conversation and what I was supposed to take away from it (and from the movie as a whole,) the one thing that keeps coming to mind is, “No, Mavis. You go fuck yourself.” It’s what dropped this movie down from a 7 and still has me borderline pissed off.
I don’t like Mavis Gary as a person, but it works because she’s not looking for my approval. So if there’s one thing I can applaud screenwriter Diablo Cody for, it’s for giving us an antihero to get behind and refusing to sugarcoat her flaws. I feel like we’re all so used to seeing movies centered around people we can root for and connect to because those are the people we want to spend time with, but it’s nice to have some variety from the other end of the spectrum every once in a while, even if we do get stuck with the occasional Greenberg. At the end of the day, I’d rather dislike a protagonist than feel neutral about them, and as much as there is to dislike about Mavis, it was hard not to get invested in her train wreck of an existence.
And if there’s a second thing I can applaud Diablo Cody for, it’s that she’s still a damn good writer. From Matt’s homemade Star Wars whiskey to all the ’90s alt rock references that turn up on everything from T-shirts to mix tapes, I love the way she builds her characters through pop culture references. Makes for a nice complement to the ’90s alt rock soundtrack and it’s just sharp writing to boot, even if the humor’s a bit too bitchy for my taste.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mavis Gary since I left the theater last weekend and I’ve still got some thinking ahead of me. I can’t kick this nagging feeling that the world doesn’t need people like Mavis to fight the bad fight for us, but hers is nevertheless one of the more complicated and divisive character studies I’ve come across in ages. I almost want to see it again just to help me decide which side of the fence I’m on. Emphasis on “almost.” But whether you walk out of the theater wondering why you went in at all or you just so happen to see yourself in mean old Mavis, you’ll walk out of Young Adult feeling something, and that’s certainly better than nothing. Hell of a conversation topic at the least.