Thursday, April 5, 2012

Short Take: Young Adult

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

With his fourth picture, Young Adult, director Jason Reitman’s batting average goes from perfect to .750. It’s a cruel, repellent film, and it curdles on the screen. The screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who collaborated with Reitman on Juno, appears to be working off her resentment of the popular girls she knew in adolescence. The protagonist, Mavis (Charlize Theron), was a glamour-girl prom queen in high school. Now 37, she’s alone, divorced, and flirting with alcoholism. Her career as a writer is at a dead end. She’s spent the last few years ghosting a series of young-adult novels, and the books have run their commercial course. One day, after receiving a birth announcement from her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), she decides to return to her hometown. Her goal is to break up his marriage, and get him back. The film demeans Mavis by turning her into the opposite of what she was in her teens. Now she’s the infatuated loser being humiliated by the futility of her romantic pursuits. The glamorous hauteur and fashion sense that made her a queen bee now mark her as a misfit. She was once the center of attention, and now the only friend she can find is a pudgy, geeky classmate (Patton Oswalt) whom she barely noticed while they were growing up. The scenes with Oswalt are by far the easiest to take, partly because he’s an open, amiable presence, and partly because they’re the only time Mavis isn’t making a complete ass of herself. But the film is just using his character against her, too. The romantic turn their relationship takes is treated as the moment Mavis hits bottom, and the film completely forgets about him afterward. Reitman isn’t in bad form. His staging, tempo, and sense of location are fine, and he gets good work from Theron and the rest of the cast. He’s just not able to get past the ugliness of Cody’s material.

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