John Hughes

Writer’s Shock: Struck by Lightning

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I watched Ryan Murphy’s Glee for too long. Realistically, it was probably for about three and a half seasons. One of their most problematic characters was their most charismatic: Kurt Hummel, the all caps GAY character in the ensemble was played with snark and what could only be some autobiographical pain by Chris Colfer. (He sadly is, was, and always will be a lousy stereotype incapable of carrying a dramatic story line that doesn’t have to do with him being gay.) Colfer has, in recent “years”, added writer and screenwriter to his resume, with the release of a children’s fantasy book and the release of the film Struck by Lightning. What could Colfer possibly add to the “angsty, sarcastic, alienated teens desperate to get out of high school” sub-genre? Not much, really.

Struck by Lightning concerns the life of Clover, California resident (against his will, no doubt) Carson Phillips as he blackmails his way into being admitted to Northwestern University, by way of the creation of a school literary magazine. Meanwhile, his mother (Alison Janney) is falling apart, his grandmother is suffering from dementia, and the father who abandoned him (Dermot Mulroney) is about to get married to a lovely young pharmacist (January Jones). And no one really wants to be a part of his club anyways.

A lot of it feels very autobiographical, in a slightly Woody Allen-esque sense (and Allen would be quick to deny any of his work is based on his life). Colfer grew up in a small town, Clovis, California; he was president of the Writing Club, which no one went to (much like in the film); and he was basically an outsider. If he was bullied in high school, he clearly has some words to say to them, manifested in the form of bitter, sardonic, slightly pious, acerbic Carson.

In essence, the story is fairly conventional. But I suppose you can say that Colfer’s voice is kind of unique. The biting one liners are often clever, but there’s so much resentment underneath the sarcasm that it does a mediocre job walking the fine line between clever and just mean spirited. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an AOL scree name “ClevernessofMe”, and if Carson were to have a Twitter handle, it would probably be that. So much of the humor in the film is funny, and Colfer’s delivery is spot on, but it doesn’t translate as well as it should on screen. When insulting the low-IQ peers around him, it sounds like that these zingers would be better fit to an essay or even a blog. It’s no wonder why people dislike him or are totally apathetic about his club or literary magazine.

For, you see, it’s hard to gain sympathy from the audience when you are so judgment and self-righteous. Yes, there is some mild character development in the film, but very little of it concerns Carson’s own issues of his holier than thou attitude. Occasionally the jokes strain very hard to footing, which feels jarring. Perfectly enjoyable one liners, but at times, they seem like filler or that you can tell Colfer is trying very hard to be sardonic. Most of the time it works, but it also often works in a very self-aware way, which becomes an issue. It becomes irritating after a while and it ends up making his character hard to root for because he spends so much time zinging and not feeling.

That isn’t to say there isn’t emotion in the film. There is. And it is here where the film falls into the more conventional areas. Carson has dreams of becoming the editor of the New Yorker and contributing to a plethora of various reputable periodicals. That drive and desire to attain his dreams, and to get out of the small town that he wants nothing to do with, pretty much makes up the plot of a majority of teen films. The journalistic aspirations don’t make Caron or his story different, nor does the smarminess. We’ve seen that in anything from Easy A to Mean Girls, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to any number of John Hughes films. It would not be an issue if the film did not bother to try to excavate new ground or tread the old ground like it was new, but it does, and does so without attempting to seem different. It just files along with the tropes of every other high school movie without bothering to standout.

Alison Janney is winning, though, as Caron’s mother. Her performance is, at least. The characterization, however, is problematic. As problematic as her son’s. Janney has always been solid in terms of her comic timing. She’s a sharp, smart actress, and she inhabits the world weary mother role extremely well, so no points off for her. Colfer’s characterization of her is odd though, and as a family unit, they’re not so much dysfunctional as they are a terrible example of a family unit in film. Colfer tries to balance the damaged and hurt Sheryl with the smart, “I know about this world” Sheryl, but it makes for an uneven characterization. It is hinted at that she might be an alcoholic with depression and anxiety issues. We get a couple glimpses at these manifestations, but they are, for the most part, played for laughs. Yet, Colfer feels the need to make her character as self-righteous as her son. Both of them butt heads continually throughout the film (as any mother/son pairing in real life), but we only see Carson being a smartass without seeing how “terrible” his mother is. We are never really given a reason why Caron is as cynical as he is in terms of his relationship with his mother. At the same time, Colfer tries to humanize her not by showing her actual struggles but through exposition as she talks with a doctor about abandonment and her various prescriptions. Instead of giving more insight into that, she’s seen warning her son and the young pharmacist about the disappointments in life. She knows better, just like her son.

Putting the two together is, thus, very strange and unsatisfying. What Colfer has written is two characters that are at once broken and self-loathing, but deeply narcissistic (especially in Carson’s case). It is probably their dignity that they don’t want to lose, but that nevertheless makes for bad writing.  It makes it so that there’s lack of emotional closure at the end of the film for Sheryl’s arc, and that makes the ending particularly painful.

But what Colfer does get right is the writing process. I can identify with Carson’s attitude, but more than that, I can identify with how Colfer describes writing. Somewhat sappily, it’s described as being “struck by lightning”; that satisfaction and rapid fire ability to produce something that’s in your head and put it on the page (or screen). Colfer is actually able to make that feel as real as anything in the film. For a character whose agenda is ostensibly to piss everyone else with his own humor, he does a magnificent job in inspiring everyone. But, before too long, it becomes overly sentimental. But those few, brief moments of legitimate greatness in the film, when he talks about writing, those are the best Colfer might ever produce.

However, as a “coming-of-age” film, it doesn’t quite work. Self-realization comes at the end of the film, but at what expense. Carson does very little to truly develop beyond his own shortsighted sour attitude. Yes, he’s “learned” something, but the “lesson” feels both heavy handed and yet too insubstantial to warrant its heavy handedness. Even when he is given the chance to make the leap into becoming a person who can be both independent as well as aware of other people’s needs, Carson regresses into being tart and affecting. That Carson and the rest of his peers (who barely develop too) and his mother are left in a fairly stagnant state and, as aforementioned, without the needed emotional closure that this film would inherently need to end it.

At its best, Colfer channels his resentment into clever one liners, but at its worst, the film comes off as self-righteous, self-aware, mean spirited, depressing, and a little conventional. Colfer is funny, sometimes too funny for his own good, and a lot of it would probably make a better novella than a feature length film. Colfer’s problems are less narrative based and primarily character based, essentially robbing his two most important characters of the necessary nuance. But Colfer, good at dialogue, pinpoints the appeal of writing, and on that, he deserves some credit. It does very little to add to the teen genre, but perhaps Colfer might be back with something better in a couple years. Once all that bitterness and sanctimoniousness has subsided, we’ll be as struck with his work as he is.

Young and Restless: Young Adult

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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.

Grade: A

(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.)