Thursday, December 29, 2011

Young Adult

YOUNG ADULT: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson (90 min.)

Young Adult is a title which means more than one thing. Like most of the characters and situations in the film, it is heavy on metaphor. It is the genre in which Mavis Gary, the antihero of our story played by Charlize Theron, writes her serialized novels. But it’s also a description of her stunted mental state. Mavis is a lonely alcoholic who moved from her small town where she was super prom queen to Minneapolis, where she shuffles around a messy apartment and usually passes out face first in her clothes. She is a bitter woman who never grew out of her bitchy high school attitude. And when she receives an email from her old high school flame, Buddy Slade, announcing the birth of his new daughter with his wife, Beth, she can think of only one logical plan. She must go back to her small town and rescue buddy from what is surely a miserable existence.

So here is Mavis, traveling back to the birthplace of her poor attitude where she ruled the roost as the most popular bitch in school. She hops in her Mini and listens to the mix tape Buddy made from her in high school as she rolls back into town, where the Chili’s and the Staples and the KFC Taco Bell hybrids make her cringe. Her and her Pomeranian shack up in a Hampton Inn and Mavis devises her plan to win back her beau. But first, she stops in a local dive for a quick drink or four, and runs into Matt Freehauf, a guy she graduated with played by Patton Oswalt. But Matt was a nerd in high school and Mavis doesn’t remember him even though their lockers were side by side. Alas, Matt was beaten severely in high school and is now handicapped and of course Mavis remembers him now. “You’re the hate crime guy,” she says offhandedly, “why didn’t you just say that?”

Mavis tells Matt her plan, and Matt adamantly tries to stop her from ruining Buddy’s life. For all her outward beauty, Mavis is ugly inside. Matt is the opposite of this, another example of the metaphors that are too heavy all the way through the picture. Matt and Mavis spark a genuine friendship and their banter is the best part of the film.

Mavis says most things offhandedly. She finally gets a one on one meeting with her beloved Buddy, who has quietly settled into middle age with his wife and child. Buddy seems happy to have his life, but Mavis doesn’t see it that way. Early on in Young Adult, Travis Bickle crept into my head and stayed there. This is Taxi Driver, or The Searchers, fashioned into an offbeat comedy. Although it isn’t all that funny because Mavis is truly, deeply disturbed. She is alone and confused and consumed by her own thoughts, and reaches out to try and save a person who doesn’t need or want saving. Sound like anyone we’ve seen before in cinema? The fact that Mavis is clearly mentally unstable takes some of the bite out of the humor.

The three central performances in Young Adult are all well crafted, and the screenplay from Diablo Cody doesn’t draw attention to itself, which is always a danger with a Cody script. Theron is at her best when her beauty is not the draw of her character. Mavis wakes up and shuffles about the same way each morning, hung over and her hair in shambles, although she does beautify herself by the time happy hour rolls around. Patton Oswalt continues to impress me as a real actor with distinguished depth in his performance. We need more of him. And Patrick Wilson as Buddy does his thing; Wilson always appears in movies without hurting or helping anything. He has potential, but he needs a meatier role here.

Young Adult didn’t leave an impression on me really. It simply… exists. Jason Reitman has always impressed me, and I think as a director he has his finger on the pulse of what makes a dramedy an effective narrative structure for character study. He does what he can with the material here, which is a fine story but not one with any inventiveness or need to be really. Performances will get a film so far, but without substance or a unique thought the end result will be lacking. Such is the case with Young Adult.