Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman)
No subject has garnered more attention from young American filmmakers in recent years than the relatively new phenomenon of perpetual adolescence. Generally you know this in shorthand as the man-child phenomenon; though traceable all the way back to a number of mid-’90s slacker comedies, the subgenre’s tipping point came in 2007 with Judd Apatow’s well-intentioned and generally decent Knocked Up. In that film’s wake, an old slagging joke has become a triumphant motif. In the last two years, meanwhile, two directors have taken up the subject in such a way as to attempt to painstakingly deconstruct it. With Dark Horse, Todd Solondz made a human of the stereotype and walked away with a heartbreaking and emotionally crushing near-masterpiece. Jason Reitman, on the other hand, brings us Young Adult, the most pointlessly unpleasant “comedy” to come out of all this to date, with the “twist” that it comes from an ostensibly female point of view, centering as it does on Charlize Theron as an author of young adult novels who has never mentally left high school, still acting out its dramas and reliving its pains even as she simplifies them into kiddie lit. Now, this is sort of beside the point, but while I don’t know any YA authors I do work in a library and know more than a little bit about the field, and I tend to assume that Young Adult is to the tween paperback cottage industry what Nashville was to the country music scene, what Boogie Nights was to the porn industry: an insult couched in art. But that needn’t concern us here — we all get insulted anyway.
This is the second collaboration of Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody; I have nothing against either of these people. I liked Juno well enough — and as for Reitman on his own, I loved Up in the Air. But whereas Juno found a winning sweetness buried underneath its mountain of quirk, Young Adult strips everything away to reveal a puerile nastiness. Cody knows it’s nasty; she says that’s the idea. We’re basically spending time with Theron’s Mavis because she’s supposed to be a totem of sort for a certain sort of petty person who’s never let go of old resentments. I don’t mind and never have minded watching movies about people I didn’t like and wasn’t meant to, or even movies skewed from the perspective of said people — but that’s provided that they are people. Mavis is a cartoon, a flat and awkward character seemingly created specifically for us to resent and to roll our eyes at; it’s as if Cody translated every poor experience she had with other people in her adolescence and shaped them all into a punching bag just to take the piss out of them. And we become her unwitting accomplices. It’s a big vindictive display of the very sort of silly dirty laundry that the film pretends to rail against, and frankly it’s disgusting — to the extent that I’m floored the same person could be behind the camera for this and the sensitive, serious-minded Up in the Air. This film is not the work of a mature artist; it’s an ugly picture about ugly things.
And yet, the frustration comes forth because there’s something here. There’s the skeleton of a complete story and a complete character, but what we get is mere shorthand. For a time, Mavis has us in her grip enough because we just know all this raw small-minded rage is going somewhere — for stretches, the film’s enjoyable simply because it arouses our curiosity about how on earth this weirdo can possibly be serious about what she’s doing. You see, she’s been set into a tizzy because her ex-boyfriend has recently had a child with his charming young wife, and she intends to apparently break them up? And whisk her old beau Buddy off to Minneapolis for a new life together. But she’s serious. She means it. She’s not even seen this person in years. But we’re expected to believe that an actual adult human would behave like this. Lucky for us, Patton Oswalt — as a more resigned and sympathetic but physically crippled mirror image to Mavis — is there to say what we’re all thinking, to tell her to stop this madness, to marvel at her crassness and gall. It’s a part that awards lots of big showy monologues. I wonder if he thought he’d win something for it? Because I dunno why else you’d put yourself through this. Things elevate, as they do, and after an outrageous session of bitchery at an outdoor barbecue wherein she calls out her friends, family, ex, and seemingly the entire population of Minnesota for various injustices, she and Oswalt’s Matt have some moment of a connection and somehow everything seems to be taking shape. You think, ah-ha, perhaps there was a hidden purpose to all of this! (Maybe even the inexplicable closeups of the inner workings of a cassette player will ultimately make sense!)
But alas — the entire messy time we spend watching Theron humiliate herself to serve as some voodoo outlet for an audience’s mass aggression toward scarcely-remembered grievances, we are simply being set up for Cody and Reitman’s big Pitch. Their structure and theme, the thing for which all this effort and ninety-four minutes of screen time are expended, is that: some people are big jerks, and they never change. That’s it. That’s the “point.” And I understand how it might have seemed clever on paper, but to build up to a character’s inevitability and absence of capacity for change is still a narrative cheat on some sort of near-criminal order. Mavis gradually comes to show some redeeming qualities; she gains some sympathy when a pregnancy-related trauma from her past is offhandedly revealed in the film’s worst and most uncomfortable scene, then her entire persona begins to crack as she collects herself into a mutual pity-party hookup with Oswalt, but then it’s all undone by a lazy and screenwriterly monologue at the end wherein Mavis is assured that she actually is better than everyone and need never look back on all of the little people.
No, Cody doesn’t agree with such a statement and nor does she expect the audience to do so, but she is essentially making an empty argument — that this caricature as rendered by Cody herself cannot be expected to exhibit human frailty. Forgive me, but so motherfucking what? Closer and Margot at the Wedding might have asked us to show empathy toward unpleasant people, but they were never cardboard cutout puppet shows played strictly for outlandish giggles, which we’re supposed to sort-of-share-in-but-not-really (another copout); and said characters did not inherently reject such empathy through their naked utility as fuck-the-audience screenwriter tools. The third act essentially turns around from gawking at a train wreck to slowly but surely earning and fulfilling audience empathy — and then punishing them for feeling it. It’s juvenile. This is the cinematic equivalent of the “why did the chicken cross the road?” joke.
Frustratingly, I can’t completely dismiss Young Adult — the performances are uniformly wonderful. Both Theron and Oswalt sink into their roles with striking, breathless enthusiasm; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Theron more scarily engaged — please, Noah Baumbach or someone, get her on the phone. I was just as charmed by Elizabeth Reaser in a small role as Buddy’s wife Beth, doing her best to stay in everyone’s good graces and winningly adhering to the new millennial hipster-parent stereotype. The windup Young Adult bends toward, with a wounded Theron in bed with Oswalt and all of their exchanges therein, shows the affecting and graceful sense of gravity in human contact that made Up in the Air so moving and sad. The supporting characters, Matt included (though his bullied-kid back story is a bit ludicrous), are so immensely likable it’s as though they’re making up for a protagonist completely bereft of believability. Reitman is a fine director, Cody a good writer, and I doubt they could make even an idea this half-baked completely unenjoyable if they tried, but this concept needed to be gutted and redrawn completely. It features ideas that could’ve been sensitive and interesting; I mean, how many of us haven’t felt some pang or need to go back to high school and try again at some point? How many of us don’t often feel like bitchy, overgrown adolescents? It’s mindbending because the story has so much going for it but is so dedicated to its silly high-concept pitch/bitch about how ugly people can be that it sacrifices all of its potential resonance.
You know what’s worst of all about this movie? It’s easy. As Mavis would readily tell you if she weren’t too flat a concoction to ever really exist, it’s so damn simple to mock people, so much easier than to try and relate to them or communicate with them. And it’s easier still to create a person whose sole purpose is, in turn, to be mocked and chided and cluck-clucked at by the audience. It’s an unpleasant and hollow game, all of it, and frankly reflects nothing but pure laziness on the part of its screenwriter and director; sure, we’re all “children of the ’90s,” but what cultural shorthand can we bend that toward besides we liked certain songs and now we’re doing our best with young adulthood? Nothing that this film, filled with corporate signposts as some sort of statement, feels the energy to look for at least. I saw this soon after Margaret and Dark Horse, both of which spend time in the inner worlds of complex and stunted-growth individuals who are often deeply unpleasant but who come to us with genuine dignity and humanity — and we walk away with what feels like greater understanding of people. After Young Adult, we walk away feeling bitter and withdrawn. The contrast of wisdom and laziness is stark indeed.