Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 18, 2011 2:14 pm 
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Failed home wrecker

Having strayed from normal experience (though not from pop sensibility) into horror and madness in Jennifer's Body and the TV series "The United States of Tara," writer Diablo Cody has reunited with Juno director Jason Reitman for Young Adult, an ironically named drama focused on Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a writer of novels for teenage girls who is herself as confused and emotionally stunted as her characters. Mavis is another unglamorous and unsympathetic role for Theron, but far less extreme than the one she played in Monster. Young Adult may appeal for its scorn of conventional box office appeal, but its character study is somewhat flat and one-note.

Young Adult lacks the cute language and topical wit of Ellen Page's pregnant teenager character in Juno. It reads more like a minor episode in a Todd Solondz movie -- with an important difference. Solondz's work isn't admired simply for being squirm-inducing. But that's close to being the only quality achieved here. Young Adult runs the risk of seeming as emotionally stunted as its main character, who does a very stupid, unwise, mean thing and learns nothing from it. This film is devoid of humor and low on humanity. It does not show Diablo Cody to be the brilliant new pop writer people keep expecting her to be. As for Reitman, though the wit of his 2009 Up in the Air was brittle and empty, the film was timely, stylish, economical, and sometimes surprising. This, despite the defiantly unappealing subject matter, is a lackluster effort for him in all aspects. Theron should realize that playing an unpleasant role does not in itself constitute great acting.

Mavis has been ghostwriting a series of now no longer popular romances for teenage girls. Cody doesn't seem to think much of this genre. It's made to seem a failure in itself simply to be writing young adult books, one somehow compounded by not getting name credit for doing so. Despite a quickly dropped hint about vampires, the fabulous success of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" books for teenagers is ignored, as is the fact that writing for young people can be realistic and interesting, as in the case of S.E. Hinton's novels, and which was true, one could argue, of Diablo Cody herself in Juno. The idea that this woman writes books for teenage girls isn't well developed (if it's even believable). It exists for one purpose: to underscore that the protagonist has herself not progressed mentally or emotionally from her teenage years. She was a prom queen and high school alpha female, and that still seems to her, at 37, to have been the high point of her life.

Mavis (a name, by the way, unfashionable since the Sixties) doesn't even show off writing ideas of her own. The little snatches she writes on her white Macbook are things she's just heard teenagers say in fast food joints. As the action begins she is living in Minneapolis, divorced, with a big screen TV and a Pomeranian dog named Dolce. She is supposed to be writing the last novel in the series, and her editor is impatient to see results. She's stuck, her place is a mess, she neglects Dolce, and her one night stands are joyless.

The very stupid thing Mavis does is to take Dolce and her Mini Cooper and return to Mercury, Minnesota, where she grew up and was prom queen, aiming to re-seduce her old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married and busy helping his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) care for their newborn. It's an email about the blessed event sent out to all and sundry that gives Mavis the peculiarly inappropriate idea of going back and finding Buddy. Needless to say Mavis' fantasy that he and she, some 18 years later, remain soul mates only waiting to be reunited is born of pure fantasy, as well as contempt for marriage and indifference toward children. It's a product of desperation and loneliness and fueled by copious amounts of whiskey. When by chance Mavis runs into her parents, one of the things she blurts out to them is, "I think I'm an alcoholic." Revelations she utters at other times are that she has a lot of problems and that she has a hard time enjoying herself. Yes, we see that.

Under some circumstances the return of an old flame to disrupt a marriage can, of course, be good material for melodrama or social comedy. But not so much with a character as stunted as Mavis. In fact she can only meet Buddy alone at a bar once. After that she's invited, out of pity it turns out, to a couple of events at which Beth is also present and which in fact feature her. Mavis's excuse that she's in town for a minor real estate deal is pure pretense. Except for quick trips to the beauty parlor and the clothing store to prepare for her encounters with him, she has nothing else to do but stalk Buddy. So the movie fills in the empty time by connecting Mavis with a maudlin character, a handicapped man called Matt Freehauf (comedian Patton Oswalt, in the film's strongest performance) whose locker was next to Mavis's and who was beaten and maimed by brutish male students who wrongly thought he was gay. Matt and Mavis meet on her first of many trips to local bars, and they get drunk repeatedly together when Mavis needs company in Mercury. Matt warns Mavis to leave Buddy and Beth alone, but to no avail.

The idea of the high school hot shot who has not progressed and returns home in a futile effort to recapture lost time is a familiar cliché, though it's more usually the immature guy than the immature gal who's the topic of modern American films -- the Apatow comedies, for instance. Young Adult adds nothing but a level of cluelessness that is more transcendent than usual. As the former football star with a lingering soft sex appeal, Patrick Wilson, whose role here may bring to mind his part in the superior Little Children, has the right Paul Newman-esque quality. Not much more is required of him. Not much is required of any of the cast, who are kept at the level of pleasant nonentities in this disappointing effort, except for Theron and Oswalt. Reitman and Cody do, certainly, deserve credit for avoiding any kind of catharsis or lesson. But leaving things out isn't enough.

In the US Young Adult went into limited release Dec. 9, 2011, general release, Dec. 15; in the UK, Feb. 10, 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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