Dark comedies are so hard to do, and when done right they will appeal only to a limited audience. The latest Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody concoction, Young Adult, is one such film. Those looking for a laugh-out-loud “Hot Chick Gone Bad” riot better look elsewhere. Those looking for a painfully honest character study should sit down and have a drink. Anchored by a scathingly deadpan turn from Charlize Theron, Young Adult is as sharp as a tack and will burn in your throat like a shot of home-distilled bourbon.
Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a recently divorced semi-successful ghost writer for a once popular series of YA novels (both the series and Mavis are past their prime) who is spurred to return to her “hick” hometown when she receives an email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend’s baby. Mavis Gary joins a solid line of Jason Reitman anti-heros/anti-heroines (just like the lead characters in his Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air) – people who think they have life all figured out, hold steadfast to their sense of self and of the world around them, and then are thrown for a big loop. Charlize Theron fully inhabits this character (according to interviews, she played Mavis as if this were a drama), and although she physically looks like a more frazzled version of her real-life smoking-hot self, she still puts her whole body into the role with the same gusto she used to become a serial killer in Monster. Theron must have the worst agent in Hollywood with all the crap she has been in (Aeon Flux anyone?) but every so often she turns in performances in movies like this that make you think if she had a better agent she could be the female Daniel Day-Lewis. Theron gets that lost in her best characters – and Mavis is one of them.
Mavis’ ex is played by the always haplessly handsome Patrick Wilson, and Mavis is determined to win him back despite his “baggage.” While downing Maker’s Mark (my kind of woman) and hatching her plan at the local dive bar, she meets for the first time a guy named Matt whose locker was next to her’s for four years of highschool but whom she never gave the light of day. Matt is played with biting sorrow by the sad-clown that is Patton Oswalt – one of my favorite “dark” stand-up comedians. In his senior year, he was known as the “hate crime guy” – a poor theater-obsessed fat kid who was mistaken for being gay and mercilessly beaten by a bunch of jocks. He walks around now with a cane, and in a hilariously off-color follow-up scene at the same bar, he and Mavis run into Mavis’ cousin (whom they both hate) – a guy who got in a horrible car wreck in highschool and became the “popular cripple.” His relentlessly positive attitude drives Mavis and Matt to drink even more, and these two “down-and-outers” from opposite sides of the tracks combust like a homemade chemistry set.
Reitman’s subtle direction (watch how he turns his hand-held-ish camera to focus just for a split second on the looks on people’s faces when Mavis says or does something shocking) is matched tit-for-tat with Diablo Cody’s acerbic screenplay. I honestly thought Cody was going to go down as a one-trick pony after Juno, but she shows growth as a writer here and one can’t help but think there is a little of Mavis in her. Gone is that obsession with hipster dialogue, though she still has an ear for how people who think they are hip talk, and here it is replaced by a humanistic but unapologetic decent into the inner delusional world of a self-absorbed, alcoholic writer who while obviously crying out for help (at one point she straight-up tells her parents she thinks she is an alcoholic, an assertion they completely ignore) is also incapable of seeing herself how others see her. The humor in this situation is so dark and bracing, that when real moments of drama and vulnerability come through (witness Matt’s tirade in the woods or Mavis’ blow-up at her ex’s baby-naming party) you feel completely disarmed.
And the near-brilliance of it all is that just when you think Mavis is about to come to some revelation, in steps Matt’s twisted loser of a sister (played brilliantly by Collette Wolfe of Observe and Report fame) – someone who worshiped Mavis from afar in high school and who erroneously validates every sick thing Mavis sees in the world around her.
There’s a striking resemblance to HBO’s equally subtle and dark comedy series Enlightened starring a luminously mad and awkward Laura Dern. But what makes Young Adult so cinematic and complete is its abrupt conclusion. Mavis Gary remains to the very end an unenlightened young adult, and she’s never going to change. That, my friends, is a sobering view of some people in this world.
I do want to see this film. I’m not a big Charlize Theron fan but the dark comedy draws me in.
As for Enlightened, I watched a few episodes and then pulled back. Then one Saturday afternoon, I watched the remaining episodes back-to-back. I was first thrown by the series because of principle character as anti-hero. It was difficult reconciling rooting for the character and at the same time being terribly irritated by her dunder-ish behavior.
I’m glad I went back though because part of the rub is Enlightened is so real life with people having moments of enlightenment while mostly being boorish.
Hopefully I’ll get to Young Adult this holiday season. Nothing says Christmas like people being oblivious!
Dianne – I had to give Enlightened a long look, too – wasn’t quite sure what it was getting at, but I grew to love how subtle and true to life it was and watching Dern go through the emotions in each episode was like a slow moving train wreck. Young Adult has a similar (but more compact) effect, though it is certainly harder edged in its humor. –DHS
David, I loved this film! Though I do think Mavis changes, to some extent by the end of the film. She now accepts herself for who she is, leaving the hometown memories, and dull high school boyfriend, behind. She has not grown up but she is now okay with who she is, that is growth of a sort in itself. She can move on. The scenes between Theron and Patton Oswalt were especially good.
John – that’s the funny part about it! You’re right – she does finally accept herself at the end – and she accepts herself as a delusional despicable person – and you love her even more for it! Theron and Oswalt had shockingly good chemistry and were greatly aided by Cody’s script. The whole thing was a near-perfect marriage of writing, performances and tone. –DHS
“The whole thing was a near-perfect marriage of writing, performances and tone.”
Could not agree more. What I especially like about the script is Cody does not cop-out at the end by making Mavis find some sort of redemption. She does come to terms with who is she, a “delusional despicable person” but she never finds nor seeks redemption.
John – yes! Redemption is so overrated and overused as a theme in films. This was very refreshing – and much truer to life for many people I think. –DHS
Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review. Check out whenever you get the chance.
Glad to see this film is getting some love! –DHS
I saw you wrote about this a few days ago but wanted to wait until I’d seen it to actually read this. I almost completely agree with you, especially with regards to Cody’s growth as a writer here. I think Reitman is also taking steps into new territory as well, because this is his first “character study” with an almost completely unsympathetic character. I also agree with pretty much everything you say about Theron. Her performance in Monster is one of my all-time favorites, yet she gets stuck in Italian Job and Aeon Flux. I think she deserves a nomination for this movie, but I have a feeling her and Kirsten Dunst will both get snubbed.
Yeah…Theron I think has a slight chance because she was nominated before…but Dunst is a snub for sure. Far and away they were the best this year. –DHS
Going to wait to see the movie before I read your article, but I just wanted to say that Diablo Cody stripped at the Skyway Lounge here in Minneapolis – an establishment that lowers the bar on what “amateur night” truly means (not that I would know anything about that scene, of course). Seen through this prism, her works take on a new and profound light.
CM – yup, Madame Cody is an interesting lady. She wrote a book about her stripping experiences before shuffling off to Hollywood. –DHS
I was nervous for this film, but now I am only hearing good things. Can’t wait to see it and good write up!
Thanks, Luke – hope you enjoy it. Most cynical people will 🙂 –DHS