Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Young Adult": The Problem Play Masquerade

      Young Adult, directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, the same collaborators behind Juno, has been publicized like it’s a quirky, deadpan comedy.  Actually, it’s deeper than that.  It’s really a kitchen sink drama with a sly sense of humor and an almost cruel view of Generation X.  As with Cody’s other work (Juno and the TV series The United States of Tara), it’s all about a simple – almost high-concept – premise, a middle-class milieu, and a mordant tone.  

      I wasn’t a huge fan of Juno, though I’m about the only person I know who wasn’t.  The adult actors (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner) were spot on, especially in delineating the difference between
a smart family trying to hold on to being in the middle class and an affluent, childless couple trying and failing to avoid an early midlife crisis.  I didn’t like the characters of Juno or her boyfriend because she was too smart for her own good, though dopey enough to get knocked up in high school, and he just seemed twee – really, he got her pregnant when he seemed too listless to have survived puberty?  I thought Ellen Page did a great job with the masses of exposition she had to deliver seamlessly in Inception and that Michael Cera was a convincing young adult romantic lead in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  

      Critics gushed over Cody’s writing, but my ear heard a smart-ass twentysomething writer rather than a contemporary teenager.  However, female teenagers I’ve worked with love the movie.  It’s akin to the Baby Boomers’ relationship with The Graduate or my generation’s connection to Risky Business.  My greatest concern was that it seemed like everything was about the writing and there was no focus on Reitman’s directing.  He even deferred to the writing in interviews.  Remember, this was about the guy whose debut was Thank You For Smoking, a satire that recalled some of Billy Wilder’s ‘60s work, especially The Fortune Cookie, in its tone and featured an original look at a father/son relationship.  Like Juno, it was very well cast and that is just as important – if not more so – than the script.  Reitman went on to co-write and direct Up in the Air, which is The Apartment for our era.  

Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, and Elizabeth Reaser
      Now we have Young Adult and it again shows Reitman’s strengths, which are his handling of actors, an exterior milieu that reflects the inner psychological workings of the characters, and an ambivalent tone.  In some ways, Young Adult is the American Midwest response to a Mike Leigh movie.  It’s not heavily improvised and then worked into a script the way Leigh practices his method.  However, Cody’s script follows a similar pattern:  we’re introduced to a group of characters that are connected in ways that are deeper than we first see; there is a series of scenes based on incidents that do not move in the regular, commercial cause and effect pattern; a major monologue seemingly explodes out of nowhere and it addresses the problem that has defined that character and, by extension, the other characters and milieu; the resolution may reach a moment of stasis, but it’s not exactly happy or satisfying.  It’s a more mature film than Juno because the plotting is seamless and the many details that lead to that passionate climax have been set in place without being underlined.  

Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary
      Charlize Theron is great in the lead of Mavis Gary.  She’s heroic in stature and classically beautiful.  Physically, she reminds me of a young Vanessa Redgrave or Sigourney Weaver.  If another action-adventure series with a female lead like Alien should ever come up, I hope she’s considered and goes for it.  She reminds Neil of Meryl Streep because of her range.  She goes as deep into Mavis as she did in Monster, but this character is even more unlikable.  Yes, she’s more unlikable than serial killer Aileen Wuornos because she’s frozen or maybe shredded her soul.  The character has never quite moved beyond high school because that was when she felt she was ‘at her best.’  We find out later why she fell apart after high school and it’s not exactly what we’re initially led to believe.  The previews have shown that she wants to track down and get back together with her high school sweetheart Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson, but it’s not quite that simple.  In some way, she wants to make everyone in her hometown of Mercury, MN, pay for what happened to her in the intervening decades, including that ex.  

      Wilson is just a regular guy as Buddy without the obvious pretty boy with the inner rot image that he’s played in Angels in America, Hard Candy, and Insidious.  Well, at least that how he seems at first.  His role is as much of a surprise in a more subtle way than Theron’s.  The difference is that he has moved on, although in looking back on the plot, his judgement in sending Mavis an email at the beginning of the movie is chillingly indifferent.
Patton Oswald and Collette Wolf
Patton Oswalt plays Matt, a maimed classmate of the other two and he comes through with a major performance of a decent guy, almost destroyed by others including Mavis’s casual indifference.  The movie is clear-cut in showing how that coldness is the first step to almost homicidal bullying.  Matt sees right through Mavis because he has no guilt and nothing else to lose.  We can predict that Mavis and Matt will somehow connect, but not the extent.  Elizabeth Reaser is sane and quietly delightful as Buddy’s wife.  It makes complete sense that he’s with her and that she would not recognize Mavis as a threat.  She’s right not to, but not for the reasons she might think.  Collette Wolf as Matt’s sister Sandra has a wonderful scene with Mavis where she reveals herself to be her biggest admirer.  She’s almost as desperate as Mavis, but she ends up starstruck – almost literally, though certainly emotionally.  Jill Eikenberry matches up very well with Theron as her mother.  She flattens her vocal tone to match Mavis’s and she works her mouth to look almost exactly like Theron’s in their scenes together.

      This is a tough little number, but it’s well worth seeing since it’s the latest in a young director’s career that hasn’t yet seen a misstep.  Reitman is understated, witty, and able to set depth charges in his movies.

I'm glad Neil and Eric pay more attention to me than Charlize Theron did with her dog in the movie.

No comments: