REVIEW: Young Adult [2011]

Score: 4/10 | ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: December 9th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Jason Reitman
Writer(s): Diablo Cody

“Mad Love, Buddy”

And the award for movie with the worst message for young adults is Young Adult. Bravo Diablo Cody for what appears to be a cathartic foray into justifying arrogance, shallowness, and alcoholism as signs of great artistic talent rather than portraying them as glaring issues needing work, help, and maturity. Kudos for hiding a dark cesspool of angry depressive horrors beneath the sheen of a light-hearted coming home to romance the now married ex-boyfriend comedy and for allowing horrible monsters to become more horrible. Thanks for at least making it funny when not awkward and sad.

We’ve seen it many times before—that old story of popular girls becoming headcases and nerdy boys proving their worth once the high school hangover completes. Success proves to be vapid materialism and failure morphs into putting down roots and starting a life. But as we see permanently affixed on television screens across the country, some of the pretty girls never have that moment of clarity. This is where Cody has her one stroke of genius, juxtaposing Kendra and Kim against her lead as idols for the tortured masses, held back from greatness by the looks once thought as their road to prosperity. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is Podunk, USA’s version of these empty soul suckers. Her hometown believes she made something of herself, yet reality proves she only devolved further into a bitch unworthy of the sympathy of her own parents.

To create a character so unsympathetic generally means a gradual growth and realization of wrongs. A ghostwriter for a young adult novel series that was popular two years previous, this big city author is far from happy. Mornings arrive with her body sprawled on her messy bed, her dog Dolci hyper-actively looking for attention, and a blank computer screen beckoning her to call the agent clamoring for pages. Dates have become monotonous bores necessary to have sex and life itself never lived up to the dreams her younger idyllic self had in Mercury, Minnesota. Only when an email arrives announcing the birth of her high school sweetheart’s baby does she understand a desire to want more. Who says she can’t still get her man? Love does conquer all—at least that’s how she writes it for her fictitious tween Kendall.

But this isn’t high school or the made-up town of Waverley from her series. This is a glamorous thirty-something packing up her depression and willingly returning home to unleash it on people who have either forgotten her or imagined her in a fantasy of grandeur. Mavis was the one who escaped towards fame and fortune while they stayed in the status quo. That image will be blown apart once she storms back, staying at the Hampton Inn now resting beside a new influx of corporate franchising. Mercury has evolved while she still remained stagnant. An angry, superficial, selfish woman, her want to relive the ‘glory days’ of yesteryear can only succeed by ruining the lives of an ex, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and the mother of his child, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).

So, Young Adult plays out like a comedy readying for a huge, prolific fall from the pedestal of douchebaggery. Ever the elitist, Mavis can’t even remember the guy whose locker was next to hers or his sister who had once baked Rice Krispy treats as a birthday gift. Unsurprisingly, it is this duo of unfortunates who hold the most in common with the ice queen. Never overcoming the hardships put upon them in youth, they too had manifested a chip on their shoulders about the town they can’t leave. Sandra Freehauf (Collette Wolfe) idolizes Mavis and yearns to escape while Matt (Patton Oswalt)—whose masculinity was taken from him as a result of a hate crime decades ago—tries to reconcile a life that can never reach its true potential. Lack of happiness comes in so many shapes and sizes.

Watching Theron fully embody Mavis’s insane delusions of love while Wilson’s Buddy remains aloof and naïve in the euphoria of his daughter’s birth is fun—a comedy of errors eliciting uncomfortable laughs from awkward situations that should end with Mavis Gary getting punched in the face. We’re also treated with a wonderfully nuanced and strong performance from Oswalt trying to be a voice of reason, working hard to explain Buddy’s happiness to the woman he’d never have hung out with in school. The two misfits enjoy their evenings drinking away sorrows with homemade Bourban and mean-spirited barbs belittling each other’s issues. There is a connection with the potential to save both from past pain and future fears, but Young Adult doesn’t want to save people. It wants to glorify cowards and reward the despicable.

In a more serious story, Cody’s attempts to give meaning to Mavis’ mental instability would have worked. A revelation at the end tries to force us into showing her compassion, but it comes too little too late. The damage had been done and redemption is no longer an option. The film wants to remove her sexuality like it did Matt’s but unless we are to believe all women are too weak to overcome adversity, the attempt rings false. Nothing can make her actions appropriate; nothing can make us want her to ever succeed at anything again. The one scene of vulnerability able to turn everything around becomes a case of two people using one another for pity and its aftermath only explains how no one ever really changes. At the end of the day, bad people remain bad. They will blame their troubles on others and leave those who love them behind.

What is the purpose of the film then? Why did Jason Reitman decide to direct something devoid of the redemptive qualities his trio of contemporary classics—Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air—had striven to achieve? Where was the quirky love Cody instilled in us through their first collaboration of a girl coping with issues way past her age group? I really don’t have an answer to any of these questions and I don’t want to applaud anything about a film so full of lost souls that appear to have no chance of ever growing. The way Cody ends this tale can only mean she’s okay with creating anti-role models and letting their misdeeds go unpunished. Embrace depression and hate the world—as long as it makes you happy, screw those who actually care about you. I’m sorry, but I can’t condone that thinking.

[1] Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary in YOUNG ADULT, from Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures. © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left to right: Patton Oswalt plays Matt Freehauf and Collette Wolfe plays Sandra Freehauf in YOUNG ADULT, from Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures. © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Left to right: Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, Patrick Wilson plays Buddy Slade, and Elizabeth Reaser plays Beth Slade in YOUNG ADULT, from Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures.
© 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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