Jason Reitman‘s “Young Adult” is only his fourth feature film, but to hear him discuss it, it’s a major departure. Speaking at a recent event held at the 92nd Street Y, Reitman told the crowd that unlike his other films, he realized, “this is a romance.” Mind you, this is a movie where the lead actors are differentiated by, in Reitman’s words, being “a six-foot blond model who looks like Charlize Theron,” and “look[ing] like Patton Oswalt.”
“Young Adult” tells the story of Mavis (Theron), who returns to her small home town of Mercury, Minnesota, to rekindle an old flame despite his happy marriage. “This is about the most popular girl in high school,” says Reitman. “Stunningly beautiful. And everything was right for her at seventeen, everything was perfect. She’s now in her late thirties, writing young adult fiction, living in Minneapolis, and her life is not right. She’s obsessed with reality television, she has no one in her life. So she goes on this frightening trail to assassinate a marriage, basically.”
This is the second teaming between Reitman and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody of “Juno,” though Reitman clarifies this is not an autobiographical film for the former Minneapolis native, who apparently “was an alt girl in high school…I felt closer to Mavis than Diablo did. On the page this is a complicated character. This is a woman who’s really broken, obviously traumatized. She wants to be loved. But she does and says horrific things in the movie. It’s one of those roles that, with another actor, she could be turned into a caricature, a monster.”
Reitman was apparently set to start shooting the Joyce Maynard adaptation “Labor Day,” which he confirms he’s “going to direct next year” when the production got pushed, “so I had a window to make this film. I had a table read at my house, and I invited some friends, including Patton, to read it.” And it was Patton Oswalt, the popular comedian of “The King of Queens” and “Big Fan” fame, that helped him click with the movie. “Patton is the reason this movie works,” Reitman says. “He’s a friend of mine…and Patton was so spectacular [at the table read] that I just cast him right there. And when he read with Charlize, that’s when I realized, this is a romance. And I never got that until I saw them read together. This is a strange romance, about one person broken on the inside, the other broken on the outside. And one is a six-foot blond model who looks like Charlize Theron, and the other looks like Patton Oswalt, and you know this is a love that cannot be.”
During a recent awards ceremony, Theron thanked Reitman for “the opportunity to play such a bitch.” Reitman bristled at the thought, claiming, “She’s being self-effacing.” But he had no intention of making the film without the Oscar-winning actress. “I really only wanted to do this movie if Charlize wanted to do it,” Reitman says. “I knew she would take this character and make her as complicated as she was on the page. She would turn her into a complete broken, wounded human being. She would somehow find a way to make that visible, even as she looks the way she does — she’s a perfect looking human being, intimidatingly so. To somehow find humanity in that… she’s one of those rare actors that can change her nature without doing anything else. You can just stare at her and not move a muscle and you feel a change in her. She brought a humanity to Mavis that made me like her character.”
Without revealing anything, Reitman claims that the script’s ending was what sealed the deal. “The third act of this screenplay is the reason I made this movie,” he says. “It brings up a real question about whether we’re capable of actual change. We really don’t change much, and that’s a lot of what this movie’s about.” Indeed, Theron, who has had a career playing a wide variety of characters, is allowed to inhabit Mavis in a way we haven’t seen from her since. Despite the comedic tone, her self-destructive, delusional writer is as much a total immersion as her cosmetically enhanced turn in “Monster,” for which she won the Academy Award. And Reitman thinks there might have already been a little bit of Mavis sticking out of her.
“I don’t do any rehersal,” Reitman claims. “I feel like my job as a director is to get that one magic moment. I believe enough in myself, and I believe enough in my actors, that we’re gonna get it… What’s very important to me is the nature of an actor, and how much it blends with the character. And, are they exploring something within themselves when they do a part. I think there’s plenty of actors that can play a part completely opposite to who they are. But that doesn’t interest me., I don’t want to see an American actor playing a German character, that doesn’t excite me. What excites me is George [Clooney] in ‘Up In the Air,’ when he’s looking in the mirror, Ellen [Page] in ’Juno’ looking in the mirror. Every movie is autobiographical, not the story, but the emotion.”
Much of this approach apparently comes from none other than Billy Wilder. Reitman says he has visited Wilder’s work only later in his own life, clarifying, “I was a big Cameron Crowe fan, and a huge Hal Ashby fan. And in the nineties, there was the Sundance moment that gave birth to Alexander Payne and Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson and Quentin and Sofia, who made me want to be a director, but they’re coming three generations after Wilder.” But that doesn’t mean he won’t share Wilder’s legacy with others.
Speaking about a regular acting exercise he does in Los Angeles, Reitman reveals that he assembled a knockout cast for a redo of “The Apartment.” “We do table readings of classic screenplays, and a couple of weeks ago we did ‘The Apartment,’ ” Reitman says. “We had a great cast. Steve Carell was playing Baxter, Natalie Portman was playing Fran, Pierce Brosnan was playing Sheldrake. It was amazing.” But it wasn’t just the snappy dialogue that caught Reitman’s attention. “I was reading the stage directions. And the stage directions in Billy Wilder’s scripts are just off the charts. I remember he refers to the first girl you see on a date in the apartment. He describes her as ‘a real first baseman of a dame.’ I don’t even know what it means and I love it!”
“Young Adult” hits theaters December 9th.