Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, collaborators on the Oscar-winning 2007 comedy Juno, have re-teamed on Young Adult, a dark comedic tour de force for Charlize Theron and a film which looks and presents better than it may actually truly be. Still, fans of Cody’s whipsmart dialogue and those who like their comedy a bit more crispy and tough, will find a lot to enjoy here.
Theron plays Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter of teen literature (a/k/a Young Adult books), who happens upon a strange Email arriving in her inbox. To her surprise, Mavis has received an invitation to attend a party celebrating the newborn baby of her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and the birthday of his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). She stews on it for awhile and as she routinely avoids and ignores her editor’s deadlines for a book she has barely started, Mavis grabs her puppy and returns to the hometown Buddy never left behind – Mercury, Minnesota.
Mavis believes that the Email was a sign, a reaching out at a love left in the past, but not forgotten. She believes that she and Buddy will meet, rekindle dormant feelings, and life will end happily ever after. Undeterred, she arrives with all the subtlety of a stampede and begins systemically assessing and analyzing where people are, where they travel, and how she can get to the love of her life.
The sleepy town of Mercury is easy to dominate and when Buddy returns her call, Mavis’ world becomes illuminated. Riding an emotional high, she fails to account for another high school classmate who never left Mercury, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt is curiously happy to see Mavis and as her efforts to get to Buddy begin to fall into place, Matt is always around and down for a chat. Mavis warms to the idea of having a friend to pal around with in terms of Matt, but Buddy is the focus and she will not relent one bit in her quest, until Buddy is hers.
Young Adult walks the uncomfortable tightrope of what is tolerable in a comedy. As Mavis, Charlize Theron is captivating in a performance unlike any we have seen from her previously. Theron is constantly annoyed, judgmental, and razor sharp in her sardonicism of those around her. She intimidates easily and is more self-absorbed then one could ever imagine. Theron’s performance is so impressive here that I wonder if Diablo Cody’s screenplays only work when a strong character can deliver her lines for maximum effectiveness. Ellen Page was brilliant in mastering the delivery and cadence in Juno and Theron is equal to the task here. Despite winning an Oscar for her extraordinary performance in 2003’s Monster, Charlize Theron is often overlooked when it comes to discussing the best actresses working today and with Young Adult she reminds us just how talented she truly is.
And where Juno had Michael Cera to play opposite Ellen Page, Young Adult has a tremendous performance from comedian Patton Oswalt, who gives an unexpectedly affecting turn as Matt, the hometown bookkeeper with a heartwrenching past. For shocking and tragic reasons, Matt never left Mercury and resides with his sister, Sandra (Colette Wolfe), and is stunted in a time capsule of his youth that was forever cut short by tragedy. Oswalt, 5’7″ in real life, looks downright dimunitive here, and Oswalt takes another well-written Diablo Cody character and infuses Matt with a relatable empathy that works extremely well.
And yet, you need more. Young Adult is easy to watch, elicits a handful of shocking moments and jaw-dropping laughter, but at the end of the day I cannot embrace the fact that Young Adult is never all that profound or original. Other films, be they post-Juno Cody copies or not, have mined similar territories – undesirable people stumbling into the lives of others, employing narcissism to get what they want no matter the cost. Watching this, I was engaged but while it has an inventive way of making its ultimate point, when the film tries to make a statement, I was as surprisingly uninterested. If you allow me to beat the comparative dead horse once more, I swooned over Juno, and kept waiting for Young Adult to win me over in somewhat the same manner. I felt like the big moment was coming and it simply never did.
Jason Reitman is absent here as a director, especially when lining up Young Adult next to his brilliant Up In The Air, Juno, or even his terrific debut Thank You For Smoking. Reitman presents the story matter-of-factly and fails to offer anything unique in how the story is presented. Perhaps he felt the performances were strong enough, or that Cody’s screenplay was just so terrific that simpler was better. Save a well-edited and well-sequenced set of confrontational scenes, one at the baby shower/birthday party, and a winning exchange between Mavis and Matt’s sister at the Freehauf dining room table, Young Adult could have been seemingly been directed by anyone.
I liked Young Adult and will recommend it, with hesitations, to most people. I find in the days after taking it in, I keep returning to Theron and Oswalt’s work more than anything else. I also bristle at the notion that people should see a film simply because it has a couple of fantastic performances in it, because people generally go to the movies for more than that. My sense is…people will admire Theron, laugh and be alarmed a bit at the film, engage with Patton Oswalt, but really not care all that much about anything they have seen. Is there enough here to make Young Adult a great movie? Does it have to be? I’m not sure in all honesty.
Diablo Cody’s screenplay ultimately goes exactly where we know its going, with little unpredictability, even with all the outlandishness on display. Cody is an excellent writer, but this all feels just too simple to resonate. At the end of the day, Young Adult rests on the shoulders of two terrific performances; actors who generate unlikely but palpable and real chemistry. Maybe that will be enough for most people. I expected more and fair or not, I am disappointed that Cody and Reitman couldn’t match the bar that Theron and Oswalt were setting.