by George Sax
It's still not safe to go home again
“Imagine still living in Mercury!” Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), the beautiful 37-year-old central character in the corrosive comedy Young Adult, says disparagingly to a girlfriend. They’re sitting in Minneapolis, which is the movie’s cosmopolitan antithesis to Mercury’s small-town stultification. Mavis escaped from the town to a failed marriage and a career ghostwriting a series of teen-girl novels.
Actually, there’s something in Mercury she covets after all the intervening years: Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school beau. It’s his barren, pointless life she’s just been imagining, and she’s making up her mind to do something about that. She’ll go back and rescue him, as fate really intended. The fact that she’s hatched this plan after his online announcement of his and his wife’s first-born doesn’t give her a minute’s hesitation. After all, isn’t he “trapped with a wife, a kid, and a crappy job” rather than with her?
There is, of course, something very wrong with Mavis, as even she eventually begins to suspect, although not before director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (they worked together on Juno) have considerable sport with her and her delusionally self-centered mission.
Young Adult combines two hardy popular themes—the high school years of halcyon memories as the apex of someone’s experience, and the felt need to escape from the suffocating confines of small-town America—and infuses this mix with the filmmakers’ cynical comedic take. Mavis’s aims are, of course, brought up short by the realities she encounters in Mercury, even if she never really gets them. On hand to point them out to her, nevertheless, is Matt (Patton Oswalt in a sharp performance), the most interesting and poignant character in the movie. A dumpy classmate of Mavis, he was savagely beaten and maimed in senior year by some of the brutal yahoo jocks with whom she was consorting because he was mistakenly thought to be gay. Matt is clear-eyed, mordantly intelligent, and talented, and a little smitten with the glam-puss Mavis, even as he deplores what she’s doing. And, of course, he winds up being the only one in town with whom she has any rapport.
Reitman and Cody and their picture more or less maneuver along the material’s fault lines. The core of the movie’s joke is that, start to finish, Mavis hasn’t a single empathetic connection or insight. She’s a comic monster and her clueless aggressions elicited laughs from the preview audience, although the laughs sometimes sounded a little uneasy to me. This could be because Mavis isn’t by any means the only oblivious person in Mercury. Virtually all of the characters save Matt are, even if they’re all a lot nicer than Mavis.
You can start to wonder if Reitman and Cody don’t share at least some of Mavis’s dismissive disdain for these “little people.” The scene where she reconnects with Buddy and he enthusiastically but naively recounts some of the mundane changes in the town and his life really corresponds with a scene near the end when another such little person tells Mavis she’s “special” and that no one else in Mercury could have done what she has. The filmmakers may seem to be stifling a smirk.
Charlize Theron’s deftly inflected, absorbing performance holds the movie together for most of its length. But Young Adult may leave a slight sour taste when it’s done.
Watch the trailer for Young Adult
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