Mixed Tape Reviews: Young Adult

Jan 2nd, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment
Young Adult Mixed Tape Review

Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron in ‘Young Adult’

I’ve never watched a movie fumble the ball near the end zone worse than director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s “Young Adult.” The film marks the duo’s first collaboration together since their 2007 teen pregnancy opus “Juno.” Since then, Reitman did well for himself, helming “Up in the Air,” which just so happened to be my favorite movie released in 2009.

Cody on the other hand didn’t fare quite as well as her “Juno” collaborator. The stripper blogger-turned-screenwriter wrote the dreadful Megan Fox horror film “Jennifer’s Body.” The last thing I had heard about Cody before “Young Adult,” was that she had signed on to write a big screen adaptation of the Sweet Valley High series of young adult novels, which ultimately never panned out.

With that in mind, it’s tempting to assume that “Young Adult” captures the situations and feelings Cody might have experienced during her Sweet Valley stint. Her very first writing project was a memoir and she has claimed many times that the screenplay for “Juno” had personal connections to her life being married to a single father. Mavis, the protagonist of “Young Adult” played by Charlize Theron, has a lot in common with Cody as well. Both Mavis and Cody are from the Midwest. Mavis is also a writer for hire on a fictional young adult series of novels, which appear to be a lot like the Sweet Valley novels.

That Cody might be using Theron’s character as her proxy is not problematic. Many writers have created thinly veiled autobiographical characters in order to explore their personal flaws. The issue I have with the film is that Cody might be using Mavis as a vehicle to publicly justify her own personal baggage.

After finding out her high school beau just had a baby, Mavis packs up her miniature Pomeranian and drives home in a slap-dash attempt to wreck this man’s marriage and steal him back for herself. This plan is psychotic, and what makes “Young Adult” good – before all is derailed and the film is transformed into a bad movie – is that the filmmakers cast Patton Oswalt to play a character who’s wise and bold enough to let Mavis know how nuts she truly is.

A fat nerd by trade, Oswalt might not be stretching his range very much in the role of the equally fat and nerdy Matt, a hate crime survivor who now walks with a literal and figurative crutch. But if Oswalt is simply playing off a variation of himself, he still does it well. So well in fact that Matt’s relationship with Mavis becomes the core of everything that works in the movie. Matt once had the locker next to Mavis’ in High School, and while her old flame no longer gives Mavis the adoration she was slathered with in her teens, Matt fills that hole because the only light in his life seems to be the memories of the hopeless crush he had on her.

In essence, Matt is Mavis’ time machine to the period in her life she so desperately wants to recreate.

The movie inspires a flickering hope that Reitman and Cody had pulled off something worthwhile – a modern “Harold and Maude” involving old classmates who would have never been together when they were in high school. There’s even the standard Jason Reitman moment in this film that I call the Reitman reveal, where in one short moment, the way we perceive a character – or characters – is suddenly turned upside down. This happened in “Juno” when we found out that Jason Bateman’s character was a sleeze and that his prudish wife played by Jennifer Garner would actually be a loving and dedicated adoptive mother. We saw it again in “Up in the Air,” when we discover the ‘magical woman’ who was supposed to fix George Clooney’s life is secretly married with children. Avoiding spoilers, the Reitman reveal in “Young Adult” happens when we discover that Mavis is also broken mentally and physically just like Matt. This development binds these unlikeliest of unlikely partners even closer and leads to one of the most interesting love scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a film.

Sadly, what happens the morning after their consummation negates all growth of its characters as well as what was good about the movie. Rather than deal with the cracks of her broken psyche, Mavis meets a fan who, after a short coffee talk, reaffirms all of the lies that Mavis believed about herself at the beginning of the film. No, the fat nerd inside (and outside) of me doesn’t expect a character played by Theron to live happy ever after with a character played by Oswalt, but I at least expected the main character to retain at least some of the personal insights she gleaned on this journey.

With the biographical elements so visible, I suspect that Cody essentially used Reitman’s film as a vehicle for personal affirmation. Does this one-schtick pony really think if she inserts a few of her bloggy Cody-isms into a script (i.e. calling a KFC-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut combo restaurant a “KenTacoHut”) while getting paid for it, that it somehow makes her better, more important than ‘regular people’ who must do something besides writing busted screenplays for a living? If the answer is yes, that makes “Young Adult” a work of grandiose delusion more than anything else, which is a shame given the snuffed potential of the first two thirds of the film

If nothing else, this movie tells us that Cody is damaged goods, a writer incapable of growth and maturity. Reitman, who has matured a lot, would be better served by losing Cody’s cell phone number fast.

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