Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BuboBlog Reviews 'Young Adult'

"Young Adult," the new film that reunites director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, is easily the most cringe-inducing experience I've had this year — and that's meant as a compliment.

In chronicling the misadventures of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a troubled writer of young-adult novels, the movie teems with awkward moments and misinterpreted signals. Much of the dialogue will make you squirm in your seat, laughing and wincing at the same time. The film also manages to be touching and surprising, and it holds up as a worthy successor to "Juno" (Reitman and Cody's last project).

"Young Adult" depicts Mavis' return to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., after finding success as a writer in the big city (well, Minneapolis). She styles herself as a best-selling author, though she's actually a ghost writer of a book series that is being discontinued. Mavis lives in a soulless high-rise and spends her days watching reality shows while nursing hangovers and chugging Diet Coke straight from a two-liter bottle.

While finishing the final book in the "Waverly Prep" line of teen-romance novels, she decides she can only restore her own happiness if she reunites with her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Incidentally, Buddy is married and has a newborn baby.

Mavis isn't deterred by that. In fact, she sees it as her duty to free him from the prison of being a small-town family man. Along the way, she forges a friendship with another former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who she never gave the time of day during high school. Then she wreaks havoc with all of their lives, including her own.

The script displays a level of maturity that Cody didn't have with "Juno." While I enjoyed that film, the first 20 minutes were so overloaded with cutesy dialogue that it was difficult to get a sense of the characters. Cody was trying too hard to impress. Here, there's hardly any dialogue in the first 20 minutes. It quietly shows us Mavis' bleak existence — no commentary is needed. The text of the work-in-progress "Waverly Prep" novel is used as voice over, providing subtext to the actions on screen. It's the perfect way to use voice over: not for basic exposition, but to add layers to the narrative.

Theron is pitch-perfect as Mavis, and she's unafraid to cast her looks in an unflattering light (well, about as unflattering as you can make someone who looks like Charlize Theron). She keeps the character sympathetic, even when she's wounding the people around her, and finds the laughs without the film devolving into farce.

Reitman gives a nuanced look at small-town life and doesn't condescend. Sure, Mercury is filled with generic strip malls (featuring Kentacohuts) and a Macy's that was somehow lifted out of 1983. But it also has charming quirks: an all-mom rock band called Nipple Confusion and people who distill their own bourbon. Families are close-knit and happy, even without big-city glamor.

The film takes some unexpected turns in the final act, and it's hard to say whether Mavis has truly learned her lesson. She has a curious conversation with Matt's sister, who idolizes her, and the experience either destroys any progress toward self-awareness or helps her overcome her neuroses (I'm not quite sure which).

Oddly enough, it reminded me of Laura Linney's Lady Macbeth-style monologue at the end of "Mystic River," where she quells Sean Pean's conscience in favor of protecting the family. I didn't think that speech quite fit "Mystic River," and I'm not sure the analogous scene fits in "Young Adult."

Still, the film manages to keep the journey satisfying, even if you're never sure if Mavis is heading in the right direction.

BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4)