Jason Reitman adds a fourth well-crafted film to his humorously insightful (if not slightly circular) exploration of the troubled soul.
Comedies about twisted, amoral human beings are apparently still en vogue, as demonstrated by the releases of both Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses earlier this year. The trend continues this holiday season with Young Adult, director Jason Reitman's (Up In The Air) tale of a former high school "it girl" turned alcoholic writer, who returns to her small town in order to win back an old flame.
However, the key to this type of film is making the unlikable protagonist(s) just sympathetic enough for the audience to engage with, while their cruder personality quirks provide the shock-and-awe humor. So, do Reitman and his leading lady Charlize Theron manage to walk the fine line between outrageously funny and just plain outrageous? Or is Young Adult a failed experiment in dark comedy?
The story (if you didn't follow it above) focuses on Mavis Gary (Theron), a former high school queen who escaped the confines of her small Minnesota town in favor of "big city" life in Minneapolis. Although blessed with killer looks and a successful career ghostwriting a popular teen novel series, life hasn't gone the way that Mavis planned: her husband left her, her books have fallen out of favor, and she spends her few conscious hours a day struggling with writer's block and guzzling down an alternating mixture of booze and Diet Coke, while losing herself in the TV exploits of the Kardashian sisters.
Mavis is eventually broken out of her self-made purgatory by a chain-email from her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), announcing the birth of his daughter. One look at Buddy's happy world is enough to set Mavis off, so she packs her bag and her purse-sized doggy and hops in her MINI Cooper headed back home to her small-town roots. Her mission: win Buddy back and live happily after.
Upon arriving home, Mavis runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former geek from her high school crippled by merciless jocks who mistakenly thought he was gay. After enough drinks, Mavis reveals her master plan to Matt, who tries to get her to see the whopping amount of crazy in her scheme - to no avail. As this odd pair strike up an unlikely friendship, Mavis beings to infiltrate Buddy's world, trying to work her "charms" and convince him to abandon small town mediocrity for a better life with her.
Jason Reitman has made a career for himself making films about eccentric individuals who are forced to do some soul-searching (see: the protagonists from Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air), but his real talent is undoubtedly tone - specifically, striking an effective tonal balance between comedy and drama, so that the former remains grounded and the latter never gets too weighty. Young Adult continues this trend.
The movie moves at a well-controlled pace, with just the right mix of silent quick-cut scenes depicting Mavis' self-destructive personal habits, and longer sequences of her interactions with other characters. The script by Reitman's Juno collaborator Diablo Cody is full of wit - but thankfully not too overdone with "hip speak" - and contains great minute details that help convey why Mavis is such a mess of a person. The plot is admittedly formulaic in structure (hinging on the 1, 2, 3, times that Mavis meets with Buddy), and as with any Jason Reitman movie, you can bet the eccentric protagonist is going to hit an emotional wall at some point. Mavis certainly hits that wall, hard, and the fallout is uncomfortable to watch.
Despite relying on tried-and-true plot structure, scene-for-scene Young Adult is carried by the talents of its cast. Charlize Theron is pitch-perfect with her portrayal, and does a great job elevating Mavis above the walking parody she could've been. In Theron's hands, Mavis is an entertaining mix of humor and sadness - a vain, wounded and shallow girl hiding some obvious craziness behind her weary, bloodshot eyes and pretty facade. That Theron plays her straight (with Mavis totally believing in her deluded designs) only adds to the humor, and the supporting players around her react to Mavis in just the right ways.
Patrick Wilson takes on the more difficult task of making Buddy Slade the kind of ambiguous guy whose intentions you can never be sure of (is he an oblivious rube in over his head? A pretty-boy playing games?), and his arc leads to some nice twists in the third act. Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight) is a good match for Wilson as Buddy's wife, Beth, and she also manages to surprise at the end, even though she only has a peripheral presence in the story. The rest of the people Mavis encounters in the town are equally entertaining (a department store saleswoman, a hotel clerk, Matt's sister, etc...), and a brief scene with Mavis and her parents (played by Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) is darkly hilarious and well done.
Patton Oswalt is a perfect pick to play Matt, who serves as the voice of reason and sanity in the film. Oswalt does a good job of making Matt a complex and richly-layered combination of wise man, sad-sack victim, slightly cool geek, and genuinely compassionate guy. Cody's script does a good job of having Matt voice dialogue that echoes what the audience is thinking at any given point, so as to remind us (as if we needed it) that Mavis' twisted mind is not at all in step with reality, and (despite being amusing) is not the type of attitude to be admired. Oswalt and Theron have great chemistry in their scenes together, and in general, Matt is a great level-headed foil for her intense character.
If there is one running theme in Reitman's films that people tend to be critical of, it's how things ultimately come to a conclusion - specifically where the main character arcs are concerned. Young Adult follows this thematic pattern, and the end of the movie will likely feel truncated, strange, and unsatisfying to some viewers (the third act gets very twisted, very fast, and comes to a sudden halt).
Still, by the time things wrap up, the movie has offered more successful scenes and story beats than failed ones, and some great characters on top of that. Theron and Oswalt alone make the movie worthwhile, and Jason Reitman adds a fourth well-crafted film to his humorously insightful (if not slightly circular) exploration of the troubled soul.
Young Adult is currently playing in limited release; it will release wide in theaters on December 16, 2011.