Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Young Adult

Good Enough To Leave Home, And Bad Enough To Stay

Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman's comedy-drama "Young Adult", written by Diablo Cody. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, December 20, 2011

Mercury, Minnesota.  Some say it's the graveyard of broken dreams.  If you're still there, according to the wisdom of Jason Reitman's comedy-drama "Young Adult", you'll probably stay forever frozen in what might-have-been land.  Mavis Gary, a thirtysomething ghostwriter of young adult books, has moved sufficiently away (next town or so over) from Mercury, a place Mavis is repulsed by but where she's left her heart behind.  Mavis, a hometown home-wrecker and a bunch of other things, isn't much liked by Mercury, either.  Like a gun-fighting hombre walking into a hostile saloon to settle a score, Mavis returns to Mercury to snare the one that got away: her ex-boyfriend Buddy, now a married father.

Charlize Theron, in the best work she's ever done, gives Mavis a sadness glimpsed in beauty queen eyes and a knowing sense of failure and disarray.  Ms. Theron's comedy is more intellectual than physical, though a lot of what she gives Mavis is physical in a juvenile way, reflecting the character's state of mind.  Mavis isn't awkward as much as she is blunt, but the only man who takes notice of her is the one she ignored or barely acknowledged in school: Matt (Patton Oswalt), now a strange kind of guardian angel to Mavis, still scarred by a horrific beating by students who thought he was gay. 

"Young Adult", which opened last Friday across the U.S. and Canada, works best when it concentrates on the interactions between these two lonely misfits mired in their own pathetic fairy tale: the prom princess and the prickly paternal geek figure.  There's a sweetness, warmth and sexual tension in the chemistry between Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt (also great here) that gives "Young Adult" a tenderness that towers over otherwise ineffective scenes and dialogue.  There's a beautiful moment late on -- and not unexpected -- that crystallizes where Matt and Mavis belong.  It's the film's best scene and its truest.  Mr. Reitman's film falls apart however, when its focus is Mercury's surrounding one-dimensional players, all painted with the same broad brush. 

Diablo Cody (who won the Oscar for her screenplay "Juno", which Mr. Reitman also directed), has crafted a screenplay lacking an array of diverse characters and employing a predictable conclusion.  Sure, it's easy and convenient to have a straw man of a community of underachievers and bland, low-calorie personalities for Mavis to knock down with the kind of righteous anger they may deserve.  Someone has to light a fire under them.  Who better than Mavis herself?  It may not be that simple though, for what the projecting Mavis needs most is to ignite herself and find a life she's comfortable living. 

Restless, unsettled and ill-fitting, Mavis is constantly unraveling or adjusting herself into assorted outfits and hairstyles, trying on personas.  She dresses as if she's still in high school or in the prom dress she had her last dance in, or in the late 1980s or 90s.  Who is the true Mavis? 

Mavis's own arrested development has her acting out, and the unsuspecting or naïve Buddy (Patrick Wilson), has the film's keenest if unsurprising observation: "it's like we've changed, but you look just the same."  It's a line that could be meant to be damning with faint praise.  Buddy's wife Beth (a terrific Elizabeth Reaser, "Puccini For Beginners") is trusting enough to allow a woman she knows has a past with her husband to drive him home when he's intoxicated.  (I'm not sure if Ms. Cody is saying that Mercury's simpletons are too simple or that Beth has an open, compassionate and non-jealous heart.) 

Mr. Reitman brings small scale, economy and intimacy to his films, which are often sparked by one big moment of theater.  He's at his best when directing material he's written (screenplay collaborations "Thank You For Smoking", "Up In The Air".)  The sense of authorship seems to be lacking however, when the show isn't exclusively his own, and "Young Adult", for all the fine work from Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt, feels insignificant and wanting, its sense of adventure and overall comedy left somewhere in the fictional Minnesota town or on the cutting room floor.

With: Collette Wolfe, Kate Nowlin, Mary Beth Hurt, Jill Eikenberry, Louisa Krause.

"Young Adult" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and some sexual content.  The film's running time is one hour and 34 minutes.

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