Movie Review: Young Adult
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2011
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Stars: 3 out of 5
"Young Adult" is an unexpected yet captivating drama about an alcohol-sodden author who can't let go of a high school boyfriend. The movie bursts at the seams with the snarky wit that is characteristic of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. It goes out of its way to break traditional movie roles-most noticeably, the idea that a lead character must be likeable for a movie to be successful.
The story opens on Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a 30-something writer and former prom queen who has achieved a certain level of professional success as a ghostwriter for young adult books. She lives the epitome of a Midwestern big-city life: a perfect downtown Minneapolis apartment, a tiny dog for companionship and the financial security to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. She has beauty and brains and enough self-absorption to spare. And yet, Mavis is in a rut. Her greatest joys in life are alcohol, reality shows, and a string of uninteresting men, none of which satisfy her creative and emotional needs.
After an unexpected email from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), Mavis decides to head back to her small Minnesota hometown. She has one goal in mind-to break up Buddy's marriage and keep him for herself. Despite the obvious vanity and cruelty of her plan, Mavis is baffled when Buddy doesn't respond to her machinations. When her efforts don't go as planned, Mavis finds solace and a drinking buddy in Matt (Patton Oswalt), an old high school classmate.
"Young Adult" takes traditional romantic comedy ideas and turns them upside down. The movie allows Reitman and Cody to demonstrate their characteristic, twisted wit. They lull the audience with a city girl in the small town premise and, just when viewers are comfortable, the movie takes a sinister, bleak turn that is at the same time unsettling and pleasing. To his credit, Reitman makes the difficult transition seamlessly. Before they're aware of it, viewers are watching Mavis as she is forced to confront her own shortcomings in an uncomfortable and humiliating series of events. The movie also destroys stereotypical concepts that are so pervasive in pop culture. It demolishes the idea that high school is a blissful, innocent time. Small towns, Midwestern ideals, issues of sexuality and transformative moments all come under fire in the short, sarcastic film.
Charlize Theron's performance is the highlight of "Young Adult." She is convincing as the imperious and vain Mavis, who cannot let go of the past. Her actions are unforgivable and cruel; her self-pity knows no bounds. Even when faced with Matt, a high school outcast who was permanently injured after a teenage beating, she has the nerve to complain about the injustices life has dealt her. Her lack of character is particularly unsettling in the opening framework of a traditional romantic comedy. Audiences will revel in her downfall but feel uncomfortable with her inability to change and grow. Theron demonstrates a mastery of both comedy and drama as she brings a tremendously unlikeable character to life.
The major shortfall of "Young Adult" is that it overdoes the theme of refusing to grow up. At every opportunity, Reitman introduces elements that force the audience to face Mavis' true obsession with the past. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of reality shows, snarky one-liners and pathological vanity.
Theron's masterfully cruel performance is nicely supported by Oswalt's portrayal of the nerdy Matt. Oswalt, who is a comedian by trade, captures perfectly the ramifications of the emotional trauma that is a reality for so many bullied high school students. And yet, the movie does not ask viewers to pity Matt. Instead, he is the epitome of reason next to Mavis, who is painfully condescending toward the small-town existence of her former classmates. Through Matt, the audience sees the dark side of a small-town high school: the cruelty, the meanness and the lasting damage. The two make an unexpectedly delightful pair as the reasonable geek and the delusional prom queen. Though their chemistry is dark, they provide a series of genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
Overall, "Young Adult" is funny but unsettling; each laugh comes with a cringe. Reitman provides excellent direction, skillfully guiding a difficult storyline. He does not treat Theron's character with pity, but instead treats her honestly. Cody's script provides a level of humanity and emotional depth that tempers the outright cruelty of his leading lady. The talented cast delivers a story that is believable and realistic, leaving viewers with a vaguely sad and decidedly wistful feeling.