My wife and I saw Young Adult back in January. Being fans of the filmmakers involved; Jason Reitman directing, a script by Diablo Cody and a cast led by Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt, it was a film we both anticipated upon first learning about its impending release. We were not fooled by the advertising campaign of the film. Despite the fact that it was shrouded under the guise of being ostensibly a comedy, I had read that the film was in fact much darker than the trailer suggested and mined some fairly heavy territory. Having faith in the pedigree of the principles involved we took our seats at the Cinearts in Pleasant Hill (the last real hope for American Cinema) and gave Young Adult a shot.
The film revolves around a woman named Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron.) She is a writer of cookie cutter YA fiction and to say that she is a malcontent is an understatement. She drinks too much, has nary a good thing to say to or about anyone and uses what’s left of her good looks to get what she wants. Upon receiving an email announcing the wife of her ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson,) had just given birth to their first child, she is prompted to go back to her home town and win Buddy back. What follows is one uncomfortable situation after another in which a deluded, almost always drunk Mavis tries to rekindle her their long forgotten romance, completely oblivious to the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake.
My wife and I left the theater feeling sucker punched. My wife, who takes everything at face value and thinks totally in terms of entertainment value, hated the film. She thought it was a depressing mess with a rash of hopeless characters occupying the screen without moral compass or any redeemable characteristics. I gave the film a lot more rope, but could not disagree with her. While her opinion was shared, my criticism went a little deeper than that. My initial reaction to the film was that I had never seen a film more self-conscious of itself. The screenplay seemed to be a desperate attempt at a complete 180 for Diablo Cody. The idealistic and witty banter that filled the scripts for Juno and her work on the TV show United States of Tara and was supplanted by incessant negativity and the dreariest of world views. Reitman, who has proven himself an apt craftsman, carving a nice place for himself outside of his father’s shadow, had apparently decided to throw out anything he felt would be conventional opting instead for the path of most resistance. The film seems to go out of its way to buck any sort of trend you see in most films, there is no growth amongst the main characters and there is nothing even remotely close to a resolution.
Had I written this review back in January, it probably would have ended there. But, a few weeks ago I happened upon a discussion of the film on the podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. Maron loved the film and his argument was compelling enough to entice me to give the film another go. The second viewing was a completely different experience. While the film is by no means a masterpiece, I did develop an appreciation for it. I discovered that one of major reasons I disliked the film initially was the very aspect of the human condition it was trying to shine a light on. One of the major themes of the film is cynicism and the effect it has on our growth as people. It’s much easier to reject something as deficient rather than to spend the amount of time necessary to understand what it is it’s trying to say. I’m certainly not immune to doing this. I’m constantly at war with myself in an attempt to slow the fuck down and simplify. Life is overwhelming and can be quite painful and the last thing we want is to have that notion fed to us via what we choose as entertainment. Young Adult is not a comfortable viewing experience. It doesn’t exist to give you answers to the questions it asks of the audience. It leaves you, squirming in your seat, with a choice: Take the easy way out and discard the film, which is what I did after my first viewing. Or sit in the shit of it, as I did the second time around and appreciate it for not taking shortcuts or tacking on a happy ending.
I’m paraphrasing Marc Maron when I sum up what I think Young Adult is about and what I grew to enjoy about it: Life isn’t always about the funny, or the entertaining for that matter. Sometimes life is about the sad. And that ain’t so bad.
SIDEBAR: Holy shit! All that word vomit without pointing out two crucial elements of the film. Charlize Theron is an actress of amazing range and skill. I have a ton of respect for her performance in Monster, but, I think that the film was far too reliant on the physical transformation and the makeup used to make Theron look like the source material. In Young Adult, Theron is allowed to look like herself and give a performance that makes her every bit as ugly as she looked in Monster. Monster may have earned her an Oscar, but in Young Adult she may have painted her masterpiece. Furthermore, Patton Oswalt is the secret weapon of this film. Not unlike his performance in the little seen Big Fan, he is an absolute revelation as someone who has endured more pain, both physically and emotionally, that any man should bear. I may be overstating a bit because this performance is wildly different than his comic performance, but it’s fantastic nonetheless.