It’s tempting to write off the light-on-wit, shorter-on-laughs Young Adult as yet another reminder that “You can’t go home again.” As in, writer Diablo Cody can’t go back and recreate that Juno magic with director Jason Reitman.
But forget the nagging feeling that Cody used up all her witty-youthful repartee on Juno, that Reitman lost some confidence after gracelessly snatching the Oscar from his own hand by grabbing too much credit for himself for Up in the Air. Ignore how flat and generally unlikable and joyless and artificial and theatrical Young Adult feels.
They’ve still managed to get at a fundamental truth that screenplays traditionally ignore. People don’t change. Character “arc” is one of those myths that movies perpetuate. Sometimes we change and grow, but usually we find a way not to.
Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary has never felt a need to mature beyond her high school meangirl prom queen self. She’s 37, divorced, an alcoholic ghost writer who knocks off installments in the fading Waverly Prep young adult fiction series, sort of a failed Sweet Valley High for high school readers.
And yet Mavis is sure she’s made it. She’s certain she has the right to still look down her nose at those she left behind in Mercury, Minnesota, a town o chain restaurants, big box stores, a new “Ken-Taco-Hut” and a Hampton Inn, where Mavis checks in on getting a wild hair that the ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) who sent her an announcement of the birth of his first child was really trying to lure her back to town so that she could win him back.
Yeah, she’s like that. And yeah, the movie’s like that. Only less. This promising mean girl comes home premise never takes flight — weighed down by dull genre conventions and a serious lack of spark in the dialogue, situations and characters.
The good folks of Mercury are still intimidated by Mavis — a beauty who left their midst and comes back just as thin and stunning as the day she left. And she’s never learned tact, never taken one emotional baby step beyond her cruel high school persona. The old flame’s wife (Elizabeth Reaser) is in a punk bank for 30something moms (only in the movies), and Mavis blurts “Oh my God, how embarrassing.” She’s always making inappropriate come-ons to the married guy, which he ignores, or taking the emotional high ground when she has no right to it. “Sometimes, in order to heal, a few people have to get hurt” is her excuse for making this unforgivable play for a happily married man.
Patton Oswalt plays the ex-classmate she barely remembers, the limping “hate crime” victim she ignored all through school and who becomes her barstool confessor the moment she parks her Mini Cooper at the old bar she and the cool kids used to hang out at the moment they came of age..
But that’s what Cody and Reitman were aiming for here — showing a woman who won’t come of age. Mavis is perfect for writing young adult fiction because that’s where she’s stuck – young adulthood. She drunkenly confuses that fictional world where something is “true love” just because a hack writer and a hack genre deems it so with her own fate.
I wonder if the ways Mavis picks up dialogue for the books — youthspeak overheard in malls, fast food joints and the like — is part of Cody’s own work regimen. If so, that’s failing her. She needs smarter-mouthed joints to haunt. Oswalt makes a mildly interesting self-described “geek,” but he is a cliche, an out of touch screenwriter’s crutch. She does, however, get at that small town Minnesota-Dakotas mentality, that Minneapolis-St. Paul, “The Cities,” are the Mecca to which those with limited horizons aspire.Having Mavis really tuned in to The Kardashians is a zinger that works. there are probably hundreds of thousands of vapid beauties in their teens and 20s learning ALL the wrong lessons about life from that family.
And I appreciate the stream of the zeitgeist Cody is trying to follow here. Young Adult is a Facebook era movie, connections organically broken artificially and digitally brought back to life, a film that reminds us how easy it is to fall back into our old guise if we’ve left home and that’s the way we remember to act when we return. Especially if everybody “back home” is ready and willing enabler, and especially if we’ve never bothered growing up from young adulthood.
MPAA Rating:R for language and some sexual content.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Jill Eikenberry
Credits: Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody. A Paramount release. Running time: 1:34