Young Adult is another link in a long chain of Hollywood productions over the last 20 years that condemns the American middle class either openly or under a pretense of empathy. From these films, which include the 1999 trifecta of Election, American Beauty, and Fight Club, as well as The Family Man, About Schmidt, Juno, Up in the Air, and on and on, one gathers that the typical middle-class American citizen is a cowardly, untalented, adulterous drone capable of little more than working a dead-end nine-to-five shift, breeding, and shoveling in deep-fried slop at their favorite chain restaurant on Friday or Saturday night.
I’ll give Young Adult this: Unlike most of the films perpetrated by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, it’s almost entirely and jarringly upfront in its contempt for everything. In the actively offensive Up in the Air, Reitman treated out-of-work people as cuddly Ewoks who helped to pave the way for rich hunky George Clooney’s familiar moral awakening. By film’s end, Clooney’s smooth operator was still financially affluent, and could still anticipate romps in the hay with the perfect 10s of his choosing, but he was…alone! It’s the people losing their jobs or homes yet married with children who were lucky—and the fact that Reitman bragged about including “real” financially troubled people in the film only underscores his cluelessness.
Young Adult mercifully doesn’t bother with that veiled condescension, and, while it’s still off-puttingly mean-spirited, that honesty at least distinguishes it from many similarly themed movies. As with most films in this subgenre of dramedy that could be called Contemptus Americanus, the protagonist is a successful outsider who tries to assure that a variety of middle-class ghouls understand just how awful and ugly and clueless they are. The twist is that the hero, Mavis (Charlize Theron), a ghost writer of a dwindling series of novels aimed at teenage girls, is a bitter, alcoholic, potentially delusional monster who pointedly denies viewers the soothing voyeuristic glamour that you get with a Clooney film.
Young Adult admittedly has a promising opening that gets the quiet details of life as an alcoholic surprisingly right, and the incident that incites the plot proper has a nasty, potentially satiric charge. Mavis, hungover, facing that her career is potentially in the toilet, spots an email in her inbox from her high school beau announcing the birth of his first child, and something in her snaps. Leaving her current one-night stand behind in her dingy apartment with just her little dog and an impulsively packed bag in tow, Mavis flees the “big city” of Minneapolis for her small hometown of Mercury so as to win the quite-taken Buddy back.
This initially primes you for a comedy that uproots the often ridiculous clichés of a film whose idea of escapism is to offer all the little people in the auditorium a fable of a rich, talented person who grows a heart at their expense. And Reitman and Cody may have realized that aim had they allowed Mavis’s hometown cronies even a hint of dignity. But you know the game is rigged the moment Reitman stages a scene of Mavis driving into Mercury past a host of fast-food chains and the the song she’s listening to comments on the trip with lyrics that include “what’s going on?” And you know the game is really over when Buddy turns out to be played by Patrick Wilson, an actor who plays, and dully so, the same clueless dud in every movie.
Young Adult proceeds as a comedy that shoots the usual fish in a barrel. Handicapped people are ridiculed for their absurd optimism. Ranch dressing and Bacos are emphasized to clue us into the fattening, lowest-common-denominator lifestyle of these rubes, while most of the parents are portrayed as the usual sycophants. Buddy’s wife and a few others are allowed to be “likable,” but in a blandly naïve goody-goody fashion that’s designed to spur audience resentment.
Reitman and Cody would have you believe that this nastiness is intended as a projection of their toxic character’s worldview, which would be fine, but that view is never disputed beyond a superficial cover-our-bases fashion, not even in the film’s meant-to-be-shocking No Exit finale. Mavis often says and does awful things, and she’s often allowed to actually look like a woman pushing 40 whose beginning to drink away her looks, but we’re obviously meant to condone, or at least sympathize with, most of her actions deep down. The film nearly falls into that sentimentality that plagues the work of much greater—to put it politely—artists such as Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski: It’s a celebration of the subterranean heroism of a drunken artist who dares not buy into the system. The irony that Mavis is just as enslaved to (differing) custom as the people of Mercury is never acknowledged, as her customs—nice clothes, agreeable feng shui, Maker’s Mark—are most likely also agreeable to the filmmakers.
Reitman stages the film with his characteristic visual drabness, which is meant to cue us into his integrity as a director, but the auteur is clearly Cody, and Mavis is obviously a Cody surrogate (Mavis’s work is even meant as an autobiographical in-joke, as Cody has been attached to a big-screen adaptation of the Sweet Valley High series). Small towns can be stifling in their cultural ignorance and in their insistence that life follow a prescribed pattern, but to only define a small town by those dimensions while ignoring the beauty and comfort they can offer (not to mention the refreshing lack of hipster-wannabe screenwriters sitting in coffee shops) is to significantly shortchange them and to diminish your art in the process. The script is sometimes funny, and Cody, when she wants to be, is perceptive to little details of small-town life, but only if they’re damning. The way characters respond to the subject of Mavis’s writing, in a tone that’s approving and condescending in not entirely equal measure, is eerily just right. The atmosphere of the bars is unusually convincing for a mainstream American film, and the unexpected meeting of the minds that Mavis enjoys with a handicapped, geeky former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), lends the film some much needed warmth and spontaneity.
But Young Adult is mostly a predictably cynical harangue that shortchanges its actors, particularly Collette Wolfe as Matt’s sister. In only a couple of scenes, Wolfe allows you to see her character’s sadness and self-loathing, as well as a tender grace that unexpectedly deepens the film’s last, and in many cases worst, major scene. Wolfe doesn’t allow herself the smug safeguarding that Reitman and Cody have made careers indulging; she gives you, in all of three minutes, a heartbreaking portrait of a woman whose spent her disappointing life imagining the exploits of the gorgeous snake now inexplicably willing to confide in her. And it tells you all you need to know about this movie that the best the filmmakers can think to do with Wolfe’s performance is to make her character the butt of their meanest joke.
Young Adult has two predominant color themes. The scenes set during the day are mostly characterized by a gray-blue tone, while the portions of the film set at night, and usually inside bars, are logically defined by blacks punctuated with the fluorescent red and white lights of lamps, beer signs, and so forth. The gray-blues have generally been transferred with clarity, though the image is (perhaps intentionally) somewhat soft, but the night sequences don't fare as well. The background reds tend to bleed into the foreground, while some of the dark images are so inky and undefined as to obscure important visual information, such as characters' faces. The sound is much better, as ambient sounds have convincing depth and are mixed appropriately with the spare score. Overall, a mediocre-to-just-okay presentation.
The audio commentary by director Jason Reitman, DP Eric Steelberg, and first assistant director/associate producer Jason A. Blumenfeld is a traditional discussion that touches on on-site antics, filmmaker intentions, and cast-and-crew shout-outs. Reitman dominates the track, and while he discloses the occasionally interesting tidbit (such as his view of the tragic implications of that scene between Charlize Theron and Collette Wolfe near the end, an intention that doesn't register given the glib staging), he also often relies upon banal discussions of symbolism, such as his idea that the film is a romance between a person broken on the inside and one broken on the outside. Still, the commentary is generally painless, if not great. Reitman's interview with critic Janet Maslin covers similar material, but there's a backslapping smugness to the proceedings that could easily rub detractors of the film (who, admittedly, probably aren't watching anyway) the wrong way. "The Awful Truth: Deconstructing a Scene," which provides a quick impression of the revisions and ad libs that go into shaping performance and dialogue, is probably the most informative and entertaining feature. The deleted scenes and "Misery Loves Company: The Making of Young Adult" are standard, as those sorts of extras go.
People who've already convinced themselves of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's genius should appreciate Young Adult's cynical, formulaic pandering, but doubters should stay far, far away.