Thursday, December 22, 2011

Trite Valley High

Award nominations are a funny thing, right? Despite the fact that Young Adult, the latest film written and directed by the Juno pair of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, didn't look all that interesting in my eyes, it did have one major thing going for it: Charlize Theron's nomination for a Best Actress Golden Globe. That isn't to say that Young Adult looked BAD, just that it didn't look all that special when compared to the many movies out there vying for cinema dollars right now. However, I eventually had to get back to these nominated films, right? With the end of the year fast approaching, and with new releases Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Adventures of Tintin still unavailable (They both came out this week but I haven't had opportunity to see either just yet), it was the right time to see what the fuss was about. I absolutely loved Cody's freshman effort Juno, and felt that despite the inability of Young Adult's trailer to convey more than a one-note feeling about the story and plot there was a real chance that the film could really be the adult version of Juno. On top of that, The Opinioness had a glowing review on her site, and despite the two of us not always agreeing on what makes a good movie, we usually agree when it comes to the small-budget character films like this one.

You know she's immature because she actually wears Hello Kitty
Mavis Gary (Theron) is in a rut. A writer of young adult series Waverly Prep (think Sweet Valley High knockoff), she live alone with her Minneapolis apartment after her divorce, and doesn't exactly feel her life has stepped up since moving away from small town Mercury. One day, she receives an e-mail from her former high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). It's a mass e-mail sent to announce the birth of his new baby girl. Mavis transfixes on this idea and decides that the only way she can be happy is by traveling back to Mercury and stealing Buddy away from his (obviously) miserable future as a loyal husband and father in a small town. I mean REALLY.

Hint: he's not smiling because of her
Obviously, I don't think much of Mavis Gray, or people like her. Truthfully, I know I'm not meant to. She's the high school prom queen who made your life miserable if she wasn't completely ignoring you. She always believed she was better than the rest, and had no issue ditching whatever she though held her back. If she was ever your best friend at some time, you bet your ass she got something out of it. Some people grow out of this phase, realizing what a horrid person they had been. Not Mavis, though. Unapologetic in her voice and actions despite not really having a moral leg to stand on, Mavis has been emotionally stunted by too many years of sycophants telling her she was so great growing up. She wakes up to a television playing E! television shows like Kendra and Keeping up with the Kardashians. She named her dog (a cute Pomeranian who nearly stole several scenes) Dolce, after the fashion designer. She doesn't seem to ever keep up on current events or maintain any semblance of learning. And of course she can't seem to let go of her past and glory days, which is of course the point of the whole film.

Never work with animals or babies... EVER
With all these negative character traits you'd better have quite the actress in order to make Mavis even remotely sympathetic. Enter Charlize Theron, and thank God for that, or there might be no real reason to see this film on a cinema screen. Somehow Theron makes this emotional train wreck not only watchable, but surprisingly endearing as she tries to openly commit adultery with Buddy. Theron does the nearly-impossible: making Mavis a tragic character that we sympathize with and wish to get better, as obviously there are underpinning issues that have hurt her in the past (and are effectively and shockingly made known in the final act's baby naming celebration). It's easy to see why Theron is getting so much attention for her performance, as most other actresses would have likely turned Mavis into purely a bitch for no reason. Theron brings Young Adult full circle, and we actually want Mavis to learn how not only to let go of the past, but be happy with her own accomplishments as well.

Little known fact: this bar was entirely filled with rednecks. True story
It's a shame that Theron has so little to occupy her overly sufficient talents in the people acting across her. Wilson, a normally talented performer, doesn't do much besides play a normal guy, not surprising since I'm fairly certain that's all his character description called for. Both Buddy and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) are simple characters, lacking any real depth beyond bland normalcy. The same is true for most of Mercury's fictional citizens, and while that is a patent example of how the script shows small town life to be unimportant and worth escaping, it also makes most of the characters extremely DULL, making you tune out half the time. The only real exception is a surprising Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf, a nobody who knew Mavis in high school and was known only because he was the victim of a hate crime; a group of jocks beat the tar out of him when it was surmised that he was in fact a homosexual. Throughout the course of the film, he acts as the voice of reason, and yet like our erstwhile heroine Matt is likewise trapped in his own past. This makes him a highly likable and infectious character, and his scenes with Theron are easily the most entertaining in the entire movie.

"Drunk stalking" was the obvious next step
Unfortunately, what really derailed the film for me wasn't any lack of secondary characters, but in fact the path the main one leads to the end of the rainbow. After the aforementioned excellent soul-bearing moment in the film's final act, the film goes on a bit longer to a baffling character realization, and what good was thought to be gained from such a powerful scene is lost as Mavis has the same kind of self-promoting realization that could have been gained (as another character suggests) from a good therapy session. In the end, we don't feel as though Mavis has really even healed, only gone from one extreme to another. You might agree with it, but it makes for a strangely unsatisfying ending.

Yeah, that's how I felt afterwards
In the end, Young Adult is an interesting character study with some good acting thrown in, but nowhere near the potential set by creators who have done far greater in the past. Cody and Reitman should be commended for some outside-the-box thinking when it came to this film, but their efforts fail to amuse, an unfortunate side effect of unusually dull material. I would wait for the DVD release if you really want to see it, but if you need to watch an Oscar-worthy performance this winter, you can do far worse than one of Charlize Theron's best performances to date.

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