Charlize Theron might not be her own worst critic, but she’s certainly the most honest. Accepting a tribute at the Gotham Awards last week, she singled out Jason Reitman, director of “Young Adult.” She didn’t mince words: “Jason,” she said, “thank you for letting me play such a bitch.”
Reitman wasn’t crazy about the assessment. During a public conversation before a screening of the film at the 92Y, he said that the actress must have been joking, but that her denouement nonetheless “cheapens the character.” That’s a curious stab at political correctness for a director married to the idea of politically incorrect filmmaking, an avowed libertarian whose ideology lingers in each of his four features. But let’s assume he’s just covering himself and take Theron at her word — or whatever word is preferable to the unseemly one she chose.
“Young Adult” certainly emphasizes its protagonist’s underwhelming qualities. There are glimmers of dark brilliance in this rough assessment of a woman out of synch with the world around her; indeed, the movie falls short only by not following its disgruntled heroine far enough off the deep end.
Reitman and his “Juno” screenwriter, Diablo Cody, introduce Mavis Gary as a Minneapolis-based ghostwriter and lonely divorcée who often starts her days after a hard night, removing the previous evening’s falsies and chugging soda from the bottle. The story chronicles her attempt to break this cycle; of course, she makes things worse.
Much of the movie revolves around Mavis’ return to her drab suburban hometown, Mercury, in a misguided attempt to win back her now-married and settled high school sweetheart (a bland Patrick Wilson). It’s a lost cause from the outset, destined to implode at any moment. While she finds counsel with the irascible Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, perfectly cast), the portly classmate Mavis forgot that she used to bully in high school, she ignores his advice to move on.
With self destruction as destiny, Reitman has made the equivalent of a Roland Emmerich disaster movie writ small, an apocalyptic scenario internalized by a single person. He intends the movie, as he has stated in interviews, to place viewers in a state of incredible uneasiness by inhabiting Mavis’ screwy perspective in all its unflattering glory.
However, the movie amounts to a restrained, unadventurous experience. The nervous comedy has nothing on numerous other recent projects and characters designed with comparable intentions: The mumbling door-to-door salesman of Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s dog-fellating protagonist in “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” Alex Ross Perry’s still-unreleased sibling-rivalry-roadtrip “The Color Wheel,” the sexually misguided stars of the Danish TV series (and hilarious feature-length adaptation) “Klown” or your average episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” By comparison, “Young Adult” makes discomfort seem glamorous.
Although Mavis is in every scene of “Young Adult,” its filmmakers don’t relate to her. In fact, not unlike Ryan Bingham in Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” society punishes Mavis for evading domesticity. I mean that literally: In the final confrontation, her Mercury, Minn. peers stare her down and reject her disgruntled ways in a scene that recalls the climax of “The Wicker Man.”
When Mavis doesn’t face punishment, her fury infuses “Young Adult” with a naughty energy. The strongest scenes involve her unlikely chemistry with the portly Matt, an equally dissatisfied — and rejected — thirtysomething still crippled from his time as a high school outcast.
But in this regard, “Young Adult” is little more than a watered-down version of “The Color Wheel,” a black-and-white odyssey in which director Perry and his co-star Carlen Altman play an obnoxious, borderline loathsome brother-and-sister pair only truly capable of relating to each other. Alman’s character has much in common with Mavis, although she brings more transparency to her passive-aggressiveness and her brother makes things worse. Despite their constant squabbling, they find a bizarre kind of solace in each other. Perry takes them to a beautifully subversive happy ending.
By contrast, “Young Adult” only toys with the possibility of a twisted resolution to Mavis’ plight; it’s a cautionary tale for bitter people. This is Reitman’s tamest work and his most controlled, with a cringe factor that only scrapes the surface. Awkward comedy makes us recoil in terror because it bears a strong resemblance to feelings we experience in real life, providing a new context that endows it with humor. (You know how terrible mistakes become funny years down the line? Movies can speed up that process to milliseconds.)
But Cody and Reitman don’t much like Mavis, or at least fail to make her sympathetic enough for her miscalculations to feel like anything more than a rascally bachelorette receiving her comeuppance. There’s surely a better word for Mavis than “bitch,” but Theron had the right idea.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount has been slowly building buzz around the movie with “secret screenings” around the country, the promise of a Cody-Reitman team-up along with interest in Theron’s performance should put the movie on people’s radars for opening weekend. But mixed word-of-mouth and an unlikable protagonist will likely prevent it from doing much business beyond that, and may hamper its awards season prospects as well.