In high school, you have your usual archetypes that have been forever parodied in movies on TV and in John Hughes films. Everyone hopes, however, that by the time you get to college and then get out of college, everyone else will have outgrown those labels and grown up, become their own person, live in the present, and make something of themselves. For some people, growing out of the adolescent state of mind and high school mentality is not as easy as it looks. And it is not nearly as funny as it seems to be when slackers are seen on TV. Encountering the person who still lives in the past and has never grown up is actually kind of dark and depressing. Such an encounter has been dramatized brilliantly by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman in the film Young Adult. Enter woman-child Mavis Gary, played with pathos by Charlize Theron, a woman who is damaged, living in the past, and so fascinatingly layered, she becomes one of the most cleverly created characters of 2011 and one of the best performances of last year.
Mavis was the most popular girl in her school, epitomizing that horribly affecting high school archetype. She knows the lifestyle so well; she is able to manifest it through the characters she writes in the young adult book series she ghostwrites. At one point in this story, she probably was at the peak of success, with a husband and a good job, retaining her good looks, and on a sad note, still retaining the persona of her high school self. Now, she is divorced, her series is ending, and she gets notification that her high school sweet heart just had a baby. Unsatisfied with the one night stands, the constant drinking, and the state of her life in general, she heads back to her old stomping grounds to win her boyfriend back. Yeah, even though he is happily married with a newborn. On the way, she picks up a strange partner, though in comparison the voice of reason. Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the victim of a high school hate crime, seems to be just as lost in the past as she is, but at least he is, to an extent more logical. Nevertheless, the two make an interesting team, as he tries to stop her from sabotaging her ex-boyfriend’s marriage.
The success of the film is reliant on three factors: the screenwriting, the directing, and the performances. Diablo Cody owns this film as much as Charlize Theron does, if not more so. Here, Cody has developed fully fleshed out characters and dark, snarky dialogue. Dropping the jargon from Juno, she goes for “just as lyrical” without all the slang. If anything, it proves to be biting and stinging at every syllable. Her humor walks the line of cringe-worthy awkward and flat out hysterical, always balancing the two in the appropriate scenes, without needing to feel desperate. The darkness of the film is accentuated by the dialogue, especially for that of Mavis, whose every line is incredibly narcissistic and immature.
Charlize Theron takes the role and makes it one of the most memorable dark-comedic performances, or just performances, in recent memory. The woman spits fire. Theron is able to completely embody the character that Cody has created and not make forceful changes to it. She is able to make it her own, but not too much, not to the extent where it does not feel like Cody’s character anymore. It is, in essence, a beautiful collaboration. Theron imbues her character with extreme narcissism and un-likability, almost a complete level of insufferableness. But I say that as a compliment. Mavis is barely a sympathetic character in any way at all, as every action she takes is in her own interest. She sees no one else as really worthy of thought, the two exceptions being Matt and her ex, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). It is a testament to both Theron and Cody that they make the protagonist someone whom you do not actually root for or are sympathetic towards, but still make the character fascinating and the film engrossing. Cody writes the character of an emotionally stunted individual, and Theron brings it to life effortlessly. There seems to be a complete emotional change in Theron to channel this kind of wicked character. With that, Theron rings great comedic timing and a sarcastic sensibility to Mavis. Otherwise, Mavis would just be the cold hearted bitch she was in high school. Theron does not try to make the character too fragile, otherwise that would be too predictable. Instead, with she presents Mavis as the hard, superficial shell she always has been. And Theron plays this role damn well, without hesitance or second-thoughts.
That Mavis still lives in her high school years makes the fact that she manifests the life she wish she were still living through the characters in her steadily failing young adult book series. Unable to attain the man she wants, the friends she wished she had, and the popularity that once surrounded her, writing those things is easy (even if it means she has adhere to a “character bible”). The horrible irony that surrounds Mavis’ life is only ironic to us because it is what she wished she had. In reality, this fate in not entirely surprising. The way she approaches it, with complete insanity and apparently without much thought, is what moves the story and adds to the dark humor of the film. Without this irony, the film would fall flat and be just another story about just another ne’er-do-well chasing after nostalgia.
Patton Oswalt demonstrates some dramatic range here, something that seemed hard to do on his recurring role on the television sitcom The King of Queens. Having nearly given up on life, he seems to be in limbo: wallowing in the self-pity he felt when being assaulted in high school and yet realizing that he is a failure when he should be out in the real world. The jarring mentality is refreshing from a character standpoint, something one does not see that often in film. He would want nothing more than to be on his own, but disabled by the attack, he is reliant on others and still has yet to leave the hobunk town that Mavis wanted so much to escape from. It may also be the first time I have seen a “man-child” character (who is almost as emotionally stunted as Mavis herself) who is not a horrible pig that makes the popular crass jokes that infect much of the comedies of the last decade. The thing is, Matt is worse off than Mavis. While Mavis’ life is sad, it still seems to be better than most of those in her small town, although she lacks the “happiness factor”. Matt is physically stunted, as well as emotionally, and slumped in a deep depression that makes it so when he is alone, he regresses into the same deluded and immature state as Mavis. However, like Mavis, the film does not make you sympathize them or even pity them. Observing them seems to be fine for the filmmakers. (I admit fully and completely that Cody, Oswalt, and Theron were robbed of Oscar nods this year.)
The directing here is pleasantly restrained, as it was with Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. His second collaboration with Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman lets the screenplay tell the story, but still adds his flavor here and there. His visual style is evident through the bleak tone in color palette, but his directorial style takes a slight change in how he presents the characters on the screen. In his previous films, he has made seriously unlikable characters into likeable ones by the end of the film. While this is equally Cody’s doing, Reitman refuses to redeem these pathetic people and simply present them as they are, flaws and all. Kind of brave in an industry where there has to be some semblance of a happy ending or some redeemable factor. Reitman lets the characters continue their perpetual circle of unhappiness and immaturity.
There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.
(Author’s Note: I almost called this review “Another Kind of Monster“, but I didn’t really think it was fair calling Mavis a monster. Just an emotionally stunted bitch.)