Wednesday, 18 January 2012

“Can’t you get a new dress?”

Young Adult: directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody

In my gut I feel that, yes, Young Adult is a leap forward for Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, both individually and together as a team even as I almost immediately feel the need to qualify that statement by saying that the movement forward is more pronounced in the former than the latter. I should probably begin on a note of full disclosure because unlike what I’d assume to be the majority of people turning up to see Young Adult the presence which gave me pause was not the sometimes maligned Diablo Cody but the director Jason Reitman. Cody is, at best, hit or miss but with Reitman I’ve never been specifically enthralled by his directing choices, on occasion I’ ve even loathed them. And, it’s not so much that it made me worrisome about the film, because form the little I could tell Young Adult seemed like a departure from the oeuvre of Reitman at the very least (although, how much could you assess of his oeuvre from three feature films? But I digress). I approached Young Adult with my antenna down because, for the most part, I was just curious to see how Charlize Theron would play out in a lead role since other than her work in Monster I find her a bit effortful in her lead roles (Aeon Flux, North Country, The Burning Plain, Hancock).

So, Young Adult… it’s a holistically more put together venture than Juno (the two's last collaboration), at least relatively. For example, it’s more in tune with its lead character and not particularly liable to forget her cute moments with the supporting cast, even though this means that to some extent the supporting players here come off a bit shallow. Moreover, the situation here – although the premise is a bit WTF – comes off as decidedly more logical, things play out as you’d expect them to, people speak as you’d imagine they would. And that’s a big plus. If we’re to take Reitman’s last feature into consideration, curiously, also about a somewhat deluded protagonist you’d notice that there’s no garish moment where the status quo is flipped and the character turns into someone we must root for…so positive again.

And the whole thing is a good experience but it probably rivals We Need to talk about Kevin (a strange analogy, I know) as that film where the divide between good and very good is so strident. Because, it should be…or perhaps I oversell it – it couldbe something particularly special. A self-deluded, very likely alcoholic, definitely and defiantly too, unhinged woman makes her way back to the small-town she despises because a taunting photograph of an old-flame’s new-born baby becomes a siren announcing said boyfriend’s degradation into a life in matrimonial abyss. It is her job to save him. This woman is Mavis Gary, as pretty as she is emotionally crippled – a ghost writer for a young adult series, and the type of woman who sleeps with the TV on, guzzles litres of soda and alcohol, and would not be averse to looking at a baby and saying “g-roooossssss”. Arrested development? Yes, but, not in the most obvious of ways for Charlize plays this girl-woman as a curious creation. Not like the female counterpart of the man-child characters in, say, Stepbrothers. Its logic is sounder – Mavis’ unlikely “friendship” with everyman Matt who was a victim of a not-a-hate-crime is a surrogate for the audience. Like us he is both disgusted, and affronted by Mavis’ actions but just as enthralled by them (he doesn’t do much in the way to stolidly prevent her rampage).

There’s a trio of scenes at the film’s end which play out like a one-two-three punch to the gut and it wraps the film up deftly, efficiently, handily (maybe a bit too much) and everything works in those three scenes, but the bone I have with Reitman is that I wish he’d have given the same directing savvy to the rest of the film. Because that scene works more because of Charlize and Diablo than for him. For a black comedy, it’s directed in a rather humourless fashion and there are moments which should elicit more than a chuckle on screen, but they are moments which don’t land as decisively as you’d hope. And, really I am loathe to indict the director as the end-all of the issues in a film. But, I can’t give Reitman the benefit of the doubt simply because his track record is suspect and it’s the self-same dawdling on the wrong side of laidback direction which I find so exasperating in the film’s lowest points. And, Cody has her issues – most of which stem from having paid so much emphasis on Mavis’ psychosis ending up in something of a rut where the rest of the supporting cast are on the verge of being full characters.
And, you know, maybe it might have not been as much of an issue if Reitman didn’t root all our avenues into the supporting cast through shots of Mavis’ sneer.Cody is at her usual equivocal self and although it makes good on the ultimate point of serving a story where, perhaps, people don’t learn and change isn’t always forthcoming. And, that’s not bad because the movie we’re served with ends up being a rewarding experience, just not for the reasons that I’d have initially like. Because, Young Adult abandons any possibility of an ironic observance of a small-town mid-way through and I wonder if perhaps it might not have been served best by focusing on Mavis’ lunacy without the threat of any peripheral interest in the small town. But, that’s too many ifs. And, I’m satisfied with what I do get even if I can’t help but wish that the actual idea might have been dovetailed into a more decisively presented package.

B *
*Yes, more thoughts - I do feel like a bit of a curmudgeon for judging a film on what it could have been and not what it actually is. I still can't get over some annoying tics of Reitman (for example, almost every scene in Matt's room is directed in such a lazily flip way, or scenes which should play out as jokes just land there because Reitman seems much too much laidback; or the scenes with Mavis putting on her makeup which show - yes pretty girl needs to work to look pretty - but do nothing to make this character anymore complex). And, then, I do like this one - my favourite of the movies I've graded B (all 2011 films, thus far), or maybe a really low B+....*shrugs*


Nick Prigge said...

Interesting comments on Reitman's direction. I guess I never really even thought that much about his direction on this movie mostly because it just seemed so....non-anything, really. That makes me want to watch it again JUST to pay attention to the direction.

I did like, though, the supporting characters all being filtered through Mavis's viewpoint. That seemed right for the story they wanted to tell.

Dan O. said...

Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review Andrew.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick i don't think i explained it accurately, because i get what you mean and i did like how it's all about mavis but something about how reitman (and to an extent, cody) handles the supporting cast vexes me occasionally.

dan yes, charlize is excellent.