Young Adult **** (out of five)
Charlize Theron is one of the bravest of all movie stars, Jason Reitman one of the bravest of movie directors, and together they make a very brave combination indeed. Young Adult is Reitman’s darkest film so far, and Theron plays an unlikeable character with incredible, fearless commitment.
Like Reitman’s Up in the Air, this is a tragedy masquerading – on the film’s posters and trailers – as a comedy. Theron plays Mavis, a depressed, alcoholic ghost writer of young adult fiction who returns to the miserable small town of her youth to try to win back her high-school boyfriend – even though he’s happily married and has just had a baby girl. That this mission is insane is not a plot liability – it’s part of the point. Theron’s character, blessed with stratospheric good looks (the same looks possessed by Charlize Theron – there’s no Monster makeup going on here) has been on the receiving end of so much lust, longing and intense envy over the course of her life that she has become delusional. Really delusional.
Last year, Bad Teacher had a similar, though far from identical, premise – and it was a failure, as a comedy, as a story, as a film. I wrote that having a lead character who is completely unlikeable makes for a ludicrous challenge. Well, Reitman and Theron are creative professionals of the highest order, and where Bad Teacher failed, they brilliantly succeed. Mavis really is terribly unlikeable – but the movie is anything but. It’s sad, revealing, true and powerful. It looks at some of the most basic human qualities – both good and bad – with an intense gaze that is at times uncomfortable for the audience, but really, only, because they can relate. Mavis is unlikeable – but there are elements of her that we’ll all recognize in ourselves – and if we don’t, maybe we’re as delusional as her.
Diablo Cody writes smart screenplays and this is her smartest. It’s nowhere near as funny as Juno – because it’s not particularly funny at all. Despite the poster and the trailer, it’s most certainly not a comedy – it’s a drama, it’s a tragedy. It’s a sad, honest look at some of the darker aspects of being human.
Second-billed Patton Oswalt launches, at age 42 and with 95 acting credits listed on IMDB, what will now be a stellar movie career. He plays Matt, a leftover in Mavis’ hometown, one of those boys who was in the same year as her in high school and who she simply never acknowledged – never even saw. Their relationship forms the heart of the movie, and it’s an original and extraordinary one. There is no reason he shouldn’t get nominated for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Oscars. So should Cody, for original screenplay.
So should Theron, for Best Actress. She is simply extraordinary. The whole movie relies on having a central character of jaw-dropping beauty, and Theron, in every single scene of the film, kept my jaw suitably floored the whole film long. But Theron is so much more than the most beautiful woman in the world; she is an extraordinarily honest and truthful actress, and every moment of the film is filled with absolute commitment to the character. She has some extremely hard material to navigate here, and she doesn’t miss a single beat.
I can’t say this is Reitman’s best film. I can say that, just as with Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air, he has made yet another painstakingly crafted film, jammed full top to bottom with perfect performances, that asks questions, seeks truths, and is never anything other than thoroughly entertaining, even as it twists our guts.