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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Young Adult (Two and a Half Stars)

 Young Adult (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Jason Reitman, 2011
High School haunts us. It’s the great mystery we try futilely to solve afterwards, the great romance that often never happened, the paradise we imagine we lost but might regain, the great redemption that we dupe ourselves into believing can be earned by a quick trip back to the past. In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays (very well) Mavis Gary, an ex-prom queen and now a professional writer, bedeviled by her high school golden girl past — in this case her teen life and high times in a Minnesota small town called Mercury.
In the movie, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman (the Juno team), Mavis, a little been-there-done-that but still gorgeous, tries to return home in triumph from Minneapolis, even though, despite her superficial success as a writer, her life seems to be going off the rails. Her husband left her, she‘s facing writer’s block, she has a mean streak to go with her stunner‘s sense of entitlement, and she drinks too much and wonders if she’s an alcoholic.
Mavis thinks she has a way out, though. After receiving a baby announcement from her old high school star jock boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and the hometown girl Buddy actually married, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) Mavis decides to hide her little dog in a bag, travel to Mercury, show up in her best drop-dead gorgeous outfits, steal Buddy back from Beth, and start leading the happy, contented, connected life she hasn’t found, or at least kept, in the big city.
It’s the kind of dopey plan you’d have to be a little nuts or a little drunk to conceive and try to carry out. But soon Mavis is in mercury, trying to pull it off: trying to reconnect with Buddy (who seems puzzlingly equivocal, or maybe a little dense) and Beth (who’s punishingly nice and even a little “hip“), and making new rapport with the guy we suspect will be her temporary best pal, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt was the geeky guy who had the locker next to her in school, but whom she never noticed, who still lives at home with his sister (Collette Wolf) and makes little action toy figures, and who, back in high school, was hurt for life by a hate crime assault, targeting him (wrongly) as gay, by the very jocks who were in Mavis’ crowd.
Mavis and Matt have a lot in common, besides their alliterative names. Matt is a sarcastic guy who always had a crush on Mavis. Mavis is a sarcastic gal who always had a crush on herself — and, secondarily, on Buddy. And they both know pop culture.
I forgot to explain the title, which suggests that Mavis, and Matt, haven’t grown up, though they’re both pushing 40 — but also refers to Mavis’ occupation. She’s the writer for a string of young adult novels about teen heroine Kendall Strickland, a high school beauty who leads an ideal high school existence (with a few complications), in a well known series called Waverly Prep.

No, correct that: Mavis ghost-writes the Waverly Prep series, probably for an alleged writer who — just like all those TV personalities and politicians who put their names (falsely) on books written by somebody else — is conning the public.

That synopsis makes Young Adult sound like an offbeat, cool, smart and entertaining movie. And in a way it is — but, actually, I thought it just missed. The script is smart, the actors are fine and entertaining (especially Theron, Oswalt and Reaser), and the atmosphere is heartland-cool. (Mavis has tapes of The Replacements and Beth fronts a local band called Nipple Confusion.) But some of the details and reactions seemed off, the characters sometimes sketchy and under drawn. I found it incomprehensible, for example, that Mavis didn’t make some contact with her parents before or on arriving — nothing big, just a call — not because ignoring her parents shows she‘s not a nice person, but because, unless I missed something, it suggests amnesia. People, even the not-nice people, don’t do that in small Midwestern towns unless they’re having family feuds. And if Mavis actually wins straight arrow Buddy, what will he say about it?

And a lot of Buddy’s behavior, to me, was absolutely incomprehensible. If he doesn’t realize that Charlize Theron as Mavis, meeting him in a bar in a low-cut dress, is coming on to him, then he’s a dumbo. If he realizes, and wants to extricate himself, or is ambivalent about it, then he’s bizarrely inept at doing it. And if he‘s just confused about everything, and a little shy and unable to respond, he’s not like any small-town star jock I ever met. And not like the self-confident and alert guy Wilson portrays here.

Charlize Theron, as she proved in her Oscar-winning role as prostitute/serial-killer Aileen Wuornos, is a first-rate actress who can be daring, sharp and without vanity in her choice of roles. And in many ways, playing Mavis is a gutsy choice too, and a part she does well. Still, something always seems missing, even in her best scenes. In the lesser scenes, like odd blowup and breakdown at Buddy and Beth’s party, the flaws seem more obvious. These people, and even the kibitzers, just don’t behave like typical busy-body small-towners.

The Mavis-Matt relationship, while very well acted by Theron and Oswalt, always hovers on sentimentality, when what it needs is sentiment. And though I agree that it’s refreshing to have such an unlikable lead female protagonist, Mavis would be more interesting, more true-to-life and even funnier, if there were some scenes (other than just the big gift to Matt) that showed other, nicer sides of her. People, even the worst, whether in small towns or big cities, do have contradictory elements, and they’re more interesting when we see more or all of them.

Reitman’s and Cody’s Juno, which also had a sarcastic, unconventional, rebellious heroine (played by Ellen Page), was one of the comedy/critical hits of 2007 and Reitman’s last film, Up in the Air, was funny and perceptive, one of the comedy triumphs of 2009. This one is funny and sometimes perceptive too. But not always; Young Adult often seems a little forced and half-baked too. The movie essentially says you can’t go home again, at least on your own terms, and that’s probably right — at least in Mavis’ case. But it takes a lot of moxie to write about going home again too.

Oh, by the way, the idea that a knockout unattached ex-prom queen like Charlene’s Mavis would go back to Mercury, and not have at least two or three other guys and old classmates, trying to reconnect with her (an ideal comedy role for somebody like Thomas Haden Church) struck me as the biggest stretch of all.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Young Adult (Two and a Half Stars)”

  1. stuart goodall says:

    I think it is vital that Charlize be acknowledged for this performance and it is vital these type performances get nominated at awards, even if they don’t always win, as they are more reflective of characters out there today and not necessarily written about enough. Quirky, ironic, funny modern female roles are rare and should be celebrated – Thanks Charlize, sure hope you around for awards season, you deserve too. We always only recognising real Life people or historic characters, these are the most difficult I think.

  2. Ella says:

    I’ve now seen this movie twice. Once at the New Beverly surprise screening and once at a guild screening and upon second viewing, this movie sat with me really well. I found it much more than entertaining, funny or amusing. One of the smartest, deepest movies I’ve seen in a long time — a character study, depicting a hyper view of characters we meet and know in real life – Charlize was BRILLIANT, plain and simple. No weight to gain, no ugly makeup, just her…. and she nails it. Screenplay was lacking the cuteness of Cody’s Juno, which was fine by me — still sharp as a tack but no “darling” lines. I was fascinated by Mavis and Matt’s relationship and without spoiling it for anyone, there is one scene between the two of them that I thought was some of the best acting I’ve seen onscreen this year. Patten Oswalt is, for me, the breakout actor of the year. people talk about Felicity Jones, Jessica Chastain (both great by the way), but this guy’s work in Young Adult is really masterful and brings the film its heart and soul. I disagree with MW’s review – this film is definitely among the best of the year and at the top of my personal list. Jason Reitman keeps making interesting, fresh and really wonderful films. I hope they all get to the Oscars this year, their work deserves it.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon