Monday, December 19, 2011

QUEEN BITCH: a review of "Young Adult"

Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
**** (four stars)

“People don’t mature anymore. They just stay jackasses for the rest of their lives!”
-Grandfather Briggs
Written by John Hughes from “She’s Having A Baby” (1988)

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a teenage acquaintance of mine. She was excitedly informing me about her recent exams at school as well as her plans, worries and hopes for college. As we spoke, I tried to alleviate her of some of her fears concerning potential college admissions as time was to her advantage within that process. As we spoke about life beyond high school, I decided to toss her the following nugget: That if any adult ever told her that high school is designed to be the best part of your life, then she should run as far away from that adult as possible. I stated this because, as far as I’m concerned, when looking at one life’s journey, I think it would be depressing to realize that you had peaked at the age of 16, making the remainder of your life an endless downward spiral.

This sentiment is at the core of “Young Adult,” a bitter, extremely sharp written dark comedy from Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody, who have re-teamed for the first time since their wonderful collaboration with “Juno” (2007). So often with Hollywood and independent features, filmmakers give much lip service to creating stories with characters who they deem to be “unlikable” yet I have found that rarely do so many of those films live up to the harsh convictions they wish to present. “Young Adult” does not make that tragic cinematic error as it houses a leading character who is defiantly unlikable at film’s start and even more unlikable at the film’s conclusion with no apologies and no false sentiment in the final reel. Yet, Reitman and Cody wisely realize that just being unlikable for the sake of being unlikable is not nearly enough to base a motion picture upon. So, through great sympathy and clear, detailed, crisp storytelling, “Young Adult” gives us a sad portrait of a life that never reached the fullness of its potential and how that realization becomes all consuming, leading to some very nasty behavior. While for some, a story of this nature may prove to be tedious or frustrating, but for me, “Young Adult” ultimately resulted in another Directorial triumph for Jason Reitman and further proof that Diablo Cody is indeed the real deal, and no “one trick pony” as a Screenwriter.

Charlize Theron provides a terrifically edgy and petulant performance as Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old ghostwriter for a once popular and now fading teen book series entitled Waverly Prep. Living in Minneapolis, Mavis’ life has taken a downward turn as her publisher has informed her that her series has been cancelled and her draft of the series’ final installment is due post haste. Perpetually drunk or hung-over and constantly bathed within the television glow of reality programs, Mavis receives a devastating blow within her e-mail which arrives in the form of a birth announcement celebrating the Fatherhood of her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Enraged, Mavis returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota with the full, misguided determination of “saving” Buddy from his empty life of marriage and parenthood by rekindling their old romance, stealing him away and whisking him back to Minneapolis.

While toiling away a lonely evening in a tiny Mercury bar, Mavis is reunited with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a barely remembered high school classmate whose locker was immediately next to hers and is now living out his own melancholy existence with a permanent physically disability gained from being the victim of a misdirected homophobic high school attack. As Mavis drunkenly confesses her dubious plans to claim Buddy Slade for her own once more, the twosome forge an embittered companionship of sorts as they each remain trapped by the lost dreams of their youths which have transformed into their respective miserable lives in early middle age.

From the first few scenes, “Young Adult” quickly establishes itself as one of the sharpest comedies of 2011 by firmly establishing the life of a former high school mean girl who has become an even meaner woman while not winking at the audience, letting the viewer know that what they are watching is nothing more than an ill-tempered joke. On the contrary, Jason Reitman has so much more on his mind than easy humor and superficial bad behavior. What he and Diablo Cody have accomplished so strongly is to present the fullness of a life, warts and all and most importantly, without judgment. In his previous films, including the brilliant “Up In The Air” (2009) and the aforementioned “Juno,” Reitman has become a masterful chronicler of modern day 21st century life and times and I deeply appreciated how he simply allowed the characters and situations to speak for themselves, allowing the audience to make the connections and observations for themselves. Reitman’s hand is always unforced yet always inventive and insightful as he always probes deeply, unearthing a myriad of uncomfortable truths that are nothing less than universal. “Young Adult” is no exception as it combines the familiar feeling of emotionally unfinished business and high school reunion anxiety of a film like Director George Armitage’s excellent “Grosse Point Blank” (1997) with an acerbic, acidic and cynical wit that is all of its own creation.

Charlize Theron is sensational. She delivers a fully lived-in, three-dimensional portrayal that never strikes a false note, or descends into audience self-congratulatory bitchiness. It is a performance given with a complete lack of vanity as Theron goes through a physical transformation that made her nearly unrecognizable from the statuesque model we have seen on television commercials. While not as drastic as her ferocious appearance in Writer/Director Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” (2003), I was consistently surprised with how unattractive she looked throughout “Young Adult,” a perfect cosmetic tool as her appearance is obviously a reflection of her inner world combined with her rampant alcoholism. Reitman places his camera uncomfortably close to her face and you can see the desperate, alcohol ravaged, cracked plastic beauty of the glowing teenager she once was. And I do not think that it would be terribly far fetched to see her jealous disgust at the natural beauty of Buddy’s wife, Beth Slade (Elizabeth Reaser) staring her in the face.

But, Charlize Theron’s performance is not purely cosmetic as she works this character completely from the inside out. Mavis Gary is a woman who has succumbed to a raw arrested development where she desperately tries to live her adult life from the cocoon of her beloved 1990’s teen years. But, just like the characters in Director Steve Pink’s raucous yet surprisingly perceptive “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) and Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s equally perceptive yet sadly somnambulant “Greenberg” (2010) discovered, Mavis slowly realizes that her cherished years were possibly not much to cherish in the first place. Beyond that, she also realizes that despite any popularity in the high school halls and class yearbooks, she was vehemently despised by many back then and even moreso now. In fact, and much to her disgust, the very people she barely holds any contempt for are the very ones who now pity her sad existence. Mavis’s sense of entitlement knows no bounds as she struggles yet refuses to accept living in a world that will simply not deliver all of the glories she desires simply because she wants them. It is more than fitting that she is constantly watching Kardashian reality television programs or is consumed with ghostwriting a book series that deals with the most shallow, narcissism of adolescence. Ultimately, Mavis Gary is in the same disappointing life stage as Kristen Wiig’s hapless character from Director Paul Feig’s excellent “Bridesmaids.” Both of those characters exhibit some very bad behavior but, like the song says, only Mavis Gary is truly bad to the bone.

Patton Oswalt fulfills the promise of his dramatic acting chops seen so wonderfully in Writer/Director Robert D. Siegel’s “Big Fan” (2009) as he beautifully combines gallows humor and crushing pathos as he brings to life a character for whom the long range and life altering effects of teenage bullying are permanent.

The relationship he creates with Theron as the characters of Matt and Mavis is an achingly precarious one that is filled with a cruel sense of one-upsmanship. Matt still nurses his long unrequited crush yet feels morally superior to Mavis due to her selfish pursuit of the married Buddy Slade. Yet for Mavis, we can always question if she has finally found a kindred spirit in Matt or if he is yet another person who will always be placed on a lower rung on the social ladder, a place where she can always feel superior over someone else, forever lording her status overhead. Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron are a particularly dynamic, yet loathsome, duo but they make for an exhilarating acting duet.

I must take some time to call attention to Diablo Cody’s screenplay as she is a writer who I believe has received an unfair amount of short shrift and criticism. During the theatrical release of “Juno," Cody was criticized for heaping a large amount of dialogue many felt to be self-consciously quirky to the degree that it was distracting and a hindrance to the film as a whole. Now, dear readers, you know how I feel about that awful independent film self-conscious, self-congratulatory shield of quirkiness. But for me, I felt her dialogue within “Juno” completely served her title character as it was nothing more than a protective shield to mask her obvious fear with being a pregnant teenager. Yes, Cody’s dialogue was heightened by so was the dialogue of say John Hughes, Woody Allen or the dialogue of Quentin Tarantino, three screenwriters consistently revered for their skills with creating their own cinematic language as real people in the real world do not speak exactly like their characters either.

In “Young Adult,” those levels of heightened dialogue are toned way down not because of past criticism but because that style would not really fit this story. Cody is intelligent enough to know when to bring out snap of her dialogue at the right moments so that the words sting harshly and leaves prevalent wounds that linger throughout the film. Greatly, it is her gift as a storyteller that shines brightest as she gives Mavis Gary a full history that we are given the details at key, crucial moments. And most importantly, I must commend Cody and Reitman for not making the cardinal cinematic sin of having an unlikable character who must be redeemed by the film’s conclusion. “Young Adult” succeeds grandly where films like Director Jake Kasdan’s “Bad Teacher” and Director Jesse Peretz’s “Our Idiot Brother” failed. In regards to the former, we are not given a candy colored superficial sense of a person’s inherent badness and with the latter, and unlike that film’s horrifically whiny trio of sisters, Reitman and Cody ensure that we understand the character of Mavis Gary while we also loathe her. Therefore, we will continue to follow her story and not stone the screen in repulsion.

Recently, I have come to the realization that middle age does not necessarily mean that one has ascended to a newfound sense of maturity. I think it means that we have found ourselves in the throes of adult adolescence. What we choose to do with that is up to us. We will rise, fall and hopefully rise again, making the same mistakes that plagued us during our teenage years as we all struggle with the idea of what will we be when we grow up. But we do grow up, whether we want to or not and unfortunately for Mavis Gary, that realization may have arrived too late and if it has, I doubt she even cares anyway.

Thank the cinematic fates that we have storytellers on the level of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who care enough to rise to the challenge and break all of the familiar rules when it comes to tales of the emotional paralysis that occurs during a bout of middle-aged ennui. Dear readers, the movie theaters are about to become flooded with must see material, of which I am going to try my best and see as many of as possible. But I urge all of you to please not let this excellent film fall through the box office cracks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When films of the high quality of “Young Adult” arrive, I really believe that we owe it to ourselves as moviegoers to go out and support them.

“Young Adult” more than deserves our support.

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