Over the last few years I’ve come to enjoy the works of Jason Reitman. Thankyou For Smoking was a very strong début feature. Juno was a solid film that proved to be a huge hit. Up In The Air sagged a little in it’s third act but was a great film on it’s own merits. Saved myself 3 reviews there. Young Adult is his fourth feature and his second collaboration with everyone’s favourite stripper turned writer Diablo Cody. Does this collaboration strike gold a second time? Should I have maybe come up with a joke involving strippers and making a lot of money? Find out after the jump.
Young Adult follows Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a teen fiction writer – well a young adult fiction writer but I wished to avoid alliteration – who has serious maturity issues. She has decided that an email sent from her former teen boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his new baby daughter is really a cry for her attention and so she leaves her life in Minneapolis to head back to her childhood home of Mercury, Minnesota to rekindle the love they once had. Obviously this is a crazy idea but it’s one she is determined to see through. Whilst busy getting started on wrecking Buddy’s marriage Mavis bumps into a former fellow classmate that, naturally, she can barely remember. That’s because this classmate wasn’t one of the cool kids, his only claim to fame being that he was assaulted and crippled by the school jocks who believed he was gay. This is Matt Freehauf who is played by the excellent Patton Oswalt. As the film progresses Matt attempts to stop Mavis’ plans by forming a friendship she clearly needs and dishing out some blunt truths.
What Young Adult manages quite well is to introduce us to a character that, on the surface, appears to be mentally immature for her age. Mavis is 37 years old but still acts like she did in her youth. Her job as effectively a ghost writer for a series of popular young adult fiction novels serves as a metaphor for her stunted development. During the course of the film Mavis is writing the final novel in the series and we hear her narration of the story as she is writing it. This serves as a parallel to her character development as the story she is writing reflects her mental state at the time. At the films start she is stuck in a rut and can barely write one paragraph without checking her emails. By the end she is writing her new found resolutions into the story. But there is another element to Mavis that makes her an interesting example of appearances being deceiving. Spoilers up ahead by the way. You see at the start the woman we see chugging Diet Coke from the bottle like a baby would drink milk, the woman we see spending most of her day on the couch asleep who also travels with her pet dog in a travel bag is actually a woman struggling with depression.
The clues to the truth of her issues are littered along the way but they’re handled with enough subtlety that you could skip past them easy enough because you’re so wrapped up in the immaturity of this woman. When you begin to learn the truth you’ll realise that there’s a reason why she wants to rekindle an old romance, why she seems to dislike babies and why she lives like a slob. I don’t know If it’s working with Jason Reitman that brings out this well formed characterisation from Diablo Cody but the result of their collaboration is an exceptionally well formed, three dimensional character. I believe it likely is a little of the influence of Reitman seeing as Jennifer’s Body was a terrible film lacking in any sort of character depth. Interestingly Diablo Cody is a woman who has suffered with depression and has an odd infatuation with adolescence in her work.
Charlize Theron pulls off a very strong performance throughout the film nailing valley girl vapidity yet also managing to bring the emotional weight needed for the films more heavy final third. I say it gets heavy but Young Adult actually manages to avoid going anywhere near being out and out depressing. It’s one of those stories where the depressing moments come attached with a moment of uplifting character development. The real performance star of the film though is Patton Oswalt. Most of you will know him as Spence from King Of Queens. Here he gives a strong performance as a man physically broken by his injuries who on the surface appears to be stuck in immaturity just as Mavis is. The difference is that his external damage and immaturity hide his inner maturity and ability to be bluntly truthful with Mavis about her inner damage and mental immaturity. He’s the one that builds action figures in his bedroom but he’s the one with his head screwed on. He is a physical and emotional opposite of Mavis in every way and is also exactly the person she needs in her life to help set her straight. Patton was nominated for a number of awards for this role but, as you’d expect these days, not an Academy Award. He really should have been.
The film has a few issues here and there, mostly with it’s handling of dramatic moments. Some click really well but the big one where Mavis begins to see just how messed up she is plays a little flatly for my tastes. That said the scene following that event is very strong and lady fans of Patton Oswalt will be glad to learn that he goes topless in this scene. There is also a moment at the end I think missed a chance to visually demonstrate Mavis’ new-found maturity (she puts her trophy pet dog back in it’s bag rather than get a real carry box for it) but generally the film does a good job of capitalising on the dramatic moments it presents us with. Young Adult features a snappy soundtrack, which is even woven into a story element, and the usual Jason Reitman trademark cool title credits scene, this time showing the internals of a car stereo as Mavis plays the same song from her youth over and over. The song is The Concept by Teenage Fanclub by the way. The repetition of the song signifying her desire for a better life but being unable to move past this one memory that is holding her where she is.
Overall Young Adult is a strong film that maybe falls just a little short of dramatic impact. It is certainly a well directed, shot and produced piece that stands to be one of the better films of 2011. Reitman has so far managed to go four for four when it comes to making great movies. Thankyou For Smoking is still his best as far as I’m concerned but that’s not to say Young Adult, or any of his other films so far, are any less valid. What is clear with Young Adult though is that Reitman has begun to tighten up his film’s pacing and is beginning to rely on snappy dialogue and comedic crutches a lot less. I think it may not be long before he makes a film that really forces people to pay attention and start naming him in the same breath as the Wes Anderson’s and Coen’s of the world. Also, if someone could put Diablo Cody off the idea of ever writing a horror film again that would be great. She is much better at real human drama. Let me just see what she’s got coming out next….. oh…. OHHHH……ohhhhhh. I think I’m gonna need to keep my fingers crossed for a few months…