Sunday, 1 January 2012
FILM REVIEW: YOUNG ADULT
When Julia Roberts set out for Chicago to win back her ex-college beau from the matrimonial clutches of the chocolate-covered Cameron Diaz in P.J. Hogan's 1997 rom-com, My Best Friend's Wedding, she pulled out all the stops. It was the first time the star had used her flaming mange and mega-watt smile for evil instead of good, subverting our expectations of both the rom-com and its leading lady in the process.
Young Adult isn't a rom-com but a darkly comic tale which similarly sees its beautiful but troubled anti-heroine, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), return to her home town of Mercury, Minnesota to win back her high school sweet heart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson).
Never mind that Buddy is happily married and a recent first time father: Mavis views Buddy's situation as a domestic prison and she's come to break him out, friends and family be damned.
And Theron sinks her teeth into the monstrous role which doesn't require the prosthetics of her Oscar-winning turn in Patty Jenkins' Monster (2003): Mavis radiates ugly.
But director, Jason Retman, and screenwriter, Diablo Cody (teaming up for the first time since their 2007 Oscar-winning effort, Juno), aren't conducting a study in bitchery or setting Mavis up for an epiphany-inducing fall.
There may be a rude awakening in-store for this A-grade bitch who ruled the hallways of her high school and became a minor celebrity in her hometown - first by getting out of it, and then for her success as a published author (well, ghost writer) of a teen serial - but Young Adult is made of darker stuff, and not at all concerned with redemption.
That makes the film both bold and rare. There have been plenty of films where the protagonist has been unlikeable, but more often than not they recognise the error of their ways and perform a 180 degree character turn in the third act: all's well that ends well. That's not the case here.
Mavis Gary is profoundly unhappy, as attested to by her almost-permanent inebriated state and her string of instantly regrettable one night stands (the opening sequences of Young Adult succinctly sets up the pattern of Mavis's life perfectly). Of course, Mavis is a "success", so if she is unhappy, then it stands to reason that Buddy, or anyone who remained in Mercury, must be even more unhappy than she.
Anyone who grew up in a small town and managed to "escape" will recognise pieces of themselves in Theron's Mavis Gary. Whether the narcissism, superiority complex or the lingering if inexplicable unhappiness, her predicament is identifiable however extreme. Mavis is a grotesque but she's no less real for that, and Theron, Reitman and Cody ensure we never lose sight of the human beneath the horrid behaviour.
Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) certainly doesn't. A vaguely remembered classmate (they had neighbouring lockers), Matt bumps into Mavis on her first night back in town (at a bar no less), and immediately sees her for what she is. He's not afraid to call her on all her many faults or, as required, to call a spade a f**king evil bitch. But Matt is also the closest thing to a friend Mavis will find upon her return to Mercury.
Theron and Oswalt (star of the Cody-created TV show, United States of Tara, but best known as the voice of Remy the rat in Pixar's Ratatouille (2007)) make for one of the best odd-couple pairings of the year. A somewhat comic inversion of the Beauty and the Beast paradigm, the two make for excellent sparring partners, whose barbs not only bruise but sometimes cut deep.
The same goes for Young Adult. As much as you laugh at Mavis Gary's self destructive homecoming, you'll spend just as much time tut-tutting or cringing. Failure to connect with Mavis may result in a failure to connect with the film - the darkest, most adult work Reitman and Cody have done to date - but I'd recommend you take that risk.
Besides, you can always go home afterwards and watch My Best Friend's Wedding to get that bitter after-taste out of your mouth. Getting Young Adult out from under your skin, however, may prove somewhat harder.