Jason Reitman declares without a doubt that he’s among the most talented filmmakers working today and Diablo Cody proves she’s far from a one trick pony with the delightfully awkward black comedy ‘Young Adult’. This is a smaller film than Reitman has done before (though still in keeping with his interest in character dramedies and endings without complete closure), and a somewhat more straightforward one than Cody has previously done, but they both pull it off with aplomb. I really loved this movie, as it’s seductively simple, but packed with lots to stew over after it ends. The casting of Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are inspired choices, as both do nomination caliber work here. The thing about this flick is that it constantly breaks the rules of what makes a “safe” movie for Hollywood to digest, while still being in that vein of the type of character study they dig on. It’s smart, snappy, and raw in all the best ways, a credit to both Reitman and Cody’s work. This is Reitman having all the confidence in the world in his actors and the script, and boy does it ever pay off. Every scene feels just right for the movie, while being slightly different than what you’d expect it to be. I wonder if this might go slightly to the left of what Oscar voters (and perhaps audiences) are used to, causing it to not quite be embraced as much as his previous works, but there’s such talent on display here that I can’t imagine the Academy completely ignoring it.
Mavis Gary (Theron) considered high school to be her glory days, and it seems like she’s never stopped acting like the popular girl she once was. Now a moderately successful young adult ghostwriter in Minneapolis and a functioning alcoholic/divorcee, she’s faced with her book series coming to an end and isn’t really handling it that well. At the same time, she gets an email from the wife of her former flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of their daughter. This triggers something inside of Mavis, and she packs up her dog and heads to her old small town in the hopes of winning Buddy back. Oblivious to the ridiculousness of her plan, she sets out to woo Buddy, much to the disgust and dismay of all those around her. Only Matt Freehauf (Oswalt), a disabled former classmate of Mavis and Buddy’s, seems to realize the hidden depths of the quest Mavis is going on. To everyone else, she’s that “prom queen bitch” who they used to hate, but to him, she’s the beauty queen that ignored him before he was savagely beaten by jocks who thought he was gay, and then mocked him afterwards. Neither of them have gotten over high school, but for very different reasons. Mavis wants to relive them, while Matt only wants to forget them. They spend the hours Mavis doesn’t spend trying to seduce Buddy getting hammered, but also forming a bond that’s unusual at best, and bizarre at worst. These two lost souls may have more in common than one expects at the outset. This sounds pretty serious, but it’s also damn funny as well, though it’s always awkward. Oh my is it ever awkward.
Charlize Theron deserves another Oscar nomination for her work here. She’s able to channel that essence that only high school girls have, and it makes for one of the most unique characters in film this year. She’s the female equivalent of a manchild, shameless in her pursuits and blind to the damage she might cause others. Theron does the second best work of her career, and I hope the Academy recognizes that. It’s a character some will find rather unbearable, but few will be able to deny just how terrific Theron is here. It’s a real credit to her talent that this character’s divisiveness doesn’t weigh her or the performance down. It’s truly great stuff from her. Patton Oswalt is shockingly good (though he’s also excellent in the underrated and little scene drama ‘Big Fan’) in a mostly serious role and deserves consideration for Best Supporting Actor. He’s just as sad a character as Mavis is, displaying the damage on the outside that she has on the inside. Their chemistry is also excellent, as they bond over drinks and their shared dependency on booze. As for Patrick Wilson, he’s not given too much to do, but he’s very solid in a role that mostly uses him as an idea, more than a character. In supporting roles we have Elizabeth Reaser making the most of limited screen time as Buddy’s wife Beth, Collette Wolfe as Matt’s sister Sandra, who worships Mavis, and even J.K. Simmons in an uncredited cameo as a book editor that hounds Mavis. The rest of the ensemble is very solid too. Jason Reitman films are always filled with top notch acting, and here is no exception, especially in regard to Theron and Oswalt.
Reitman is one of the best directors currently in the game at this point, and here he proves he can do something different. This is his most intimate film yet, but it’s still just as terrifically done as his other works. It’s his least flashy directing job to date, though regular DP Eric Steelberg emphasizes small town life in some wonderful ways. Mostly here he’s just doing the old fashioned thing of making sure the actors are the stars. This is a flawless job that he does here. It’s well shot as I mentioned, and expertly cut by another Reitman collaborator by the name of Dana E. Glauberman. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Diablo Cody turns in a script that is very different from ‘Juno’, but just as good. Free from the highly stylized language that won her the admiration of many and the ire of some, Cody gives each character a bit more depth than you would expect, and delights in eschewing typical structure. Both Reitman and Cody deserve credit for not giving Mavis a feel good ending and staying true to the character. This is a character study where you leave the character not necessarily in a better place than when you met her, and I applaud them for that choice, as well as for studying an incredibly unlikeable character at times. At least for Cody, it should translate into another Oscar nomination.
In terms of awards chances, the film is an outside contender for Best Picture and Best Director, but I think Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay are very likely. Best Supporting Actor could go either way, but I think it’s about a 50/50 proposition. I’m curious if the movie might be too awkward at times, but I think quality will win out in the end and a few nominations will come down the pike. It will all depend on if voters appreciate what Reitman and Cody have done and see through the high school level shenanigans of Mavis to the exceptional acting of Charlize Theron.
‘Young Adult’ is one of the best films of 2011 in my eyes, coming in right around the bottom of my current top 10 rankings. I can’t say if it will wind up making the list when all is said and done (I can’t imagine it out of the top 20 though), but I’m very confident that many of you will be delighted by this distinctly unique flick, while others will be just as frustrated by it. The movie has a lot going for it, and I for one don’t understand why the studio didn’t push it harder early on (though you can make the argument that the element of surprise has its benefits) and also embargoed this review until opening day in New York and Los Angeles. They have a winner on their hands…but in any case, now it’s out there for you all to see. Aside from once or twice making their protagonist a bit over the top in the “unlikeable bitch” category for Charlize Theron, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have made a nearly perfect little flick. Make sure you don’t miss it, or Mavis might give you the stink eye!
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