Monday, December 19, 2011

Love: Young Adult

A dark comedy done right is a thing of terrible beauty.  When the mean-spirited, black heart of a deeply cynical film can be effectively punctuated with sharp, stab wound laughs, it becomes impossible to look away.  In Young Adult, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up for the second time to bring us a nasty, brutish, and short portrait of a train wreck. While the formula is a familiar one built from rom-com cliches of boyfriend snatching and pining old flames, the script is phenomenally fresh and, frankly, outright ballsy. Cody has been criticized in the wake of Juno, accused of overwriting dialogue and ushering in a new era of overly glib screenwriting (amongst other sassy twee annoyances).  Yet, while I tired of Juno's cutesy teen pregnancy long ago, I have found myself admiring Cody's tenacity since.  She has a way of making us interested in unlikable characters.  "United States of Tara" frequently toed the line between good and evil in each member of its fractured family, making us hate them even as we sympathized.  Jennifer's Body dared to make a cheerleader queen bitch both villain and victim.  Young Adult goes the extra mile with Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron).
Mavis is the ghostwriter of a burned out Sweet Valley-esque series of books.  We believe that she has some sort of talent, and the folks she left behind in small town Mercury, Minnesota can't seem to mention her without imagining she's one of the lucky ones. Mavis escaped to the city, she's been written up in the paper, her life must be glamorous.  The truth is that Mavis is in the midst of a breakdown.  She lives in a box of a high rise apartment littered with the detritus of her self-induced misery: empty vodka bottles, dirty laundry, Hello Kitty branded t-shirts, a constant stream of Kardashians on her flat screen.  It's the messy dorm room habitat of a stunted adolescent and exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find a pretty blonde girl sleeping in sweatpants at noon.  The problem, of course, is that Mavis is in her late thirties.  She's well past the expiration date on most of her behavior, a sort of female take on the stock Apatow male.  When she receives a birth announcement from high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), she takes it as a sign.  This wrinkled baby is her bat signal.  Mavis Gary must return to Mercury, she must liberate Buddy, she believes that fatherhood must make him tremendously unhappy.  This is, of course, a projection of her own dissatisfaction.  Yet, upon sensing that someone she was once so close with must be as miserable as she is now, she seems to believe that what's been missing from each of their lives has been one another.  The key to her happiness, she thinks, lies in Buddy Slade.

Mavis is the girl you hated in high school.  She was that one.  Not the one who you resented because she was well liked, but the other one: the one people feared.  Mavis is the type who would steal your boyfriend, rub it in your face, recklessly throw around mercilessly cruel slurs, not bother to learn your real name, and probably offer blow jobs between long swigs of hard liquor in the woods.  When she returns to Mercury, she believes that everyone still living there is worse off than she is.  Her former classmates are backwoods idiots devoid of all her Juicy Couture sophistication.  Yet, while they seem in awe of the city: we know that running away didn't do anything for Mavis other than entrap her in her own isolation.  She's as delusional, conniving, and bitter as they come.  You'd like to feel sorry for her, but the movie won't let you.  She doesn't have any redeeming qualities.

Theron commits to her character in a way that pushes the boundaries of audience discomfort.  There's none of the latent charm or accidental camaraderie that we might expect to sneak through in the film's quieter moments. Mavis is monstrous, a character we are forced to laugh at from the outside, but who saddens in a way that inspires violent frustration.  We see how damaged her psyche is, we watch her drink away her present moments and pull at her hair, but Young Adult doesn't sympathize with its protagonist.  It eschews moralizing, statement making, and redemption.  Theron has bitchface down pat: she's a gorgeous woman who here, with limited makeup, seems to find ways to deaden her eyes, ice over her features, and lock into a perpetual scowl.  Though you can understand hate her, you hate her motivation, you hate how self-centered she is.  Yet, as much as you may loathe Mavis, that's how much you will love Theron for playing her.

Young Adult's warm center is Mercury High's resident outcast, Matt Freehoff (Patton Oswalt).  Oswalt is an ingenious bit of casting, the sort of figure we'd hardly expect to find playing opposite of an ice queen like Theron.  Matt is a geeky cool character firmly grounded in the reality of his situation.  Unlike Mavis, Matt's life has actually been hard, and high school left him physically damaged (the result of a truly heinous hate crime).  Where Mavis dwells on the negative, however, concocting elaborate fictions to cope with the emptiness of her own existence, Matt seems genuinely comfortable in his own skin.  The two strike up an odd friendship which, for him, seems based in a mix of curiosity and genuine kindness.  He clearly loves the twilight zone weirdness of their interactions.  Guys like him, he insists, can't help but fall for girls like her.  In the big budget, Katherine Heigl version of Young Adult, Matt would be the "suitable" alternative, the guy our heroine doesn't notice until she runs the risk of losing him in a climactic moment of epiphany.  Young Adult ain't typical.  It's caustic.  In this reality, the epiphanies come not with heart-bursting pop songs, but with dirty, kicked at grunge.  While Matt gives us a glimmer of something good, Young Adult is a painfully funny jaunt into the darkness.

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