by Raj Ranade
Movie direction is basically a process of seduction, and Jason Reitman has had a traditional tendency to come on too strong. Reitman’s past films (Juno, Up in the Air) have their share of fans, but there’s not an instant in either where you don’t sense a filmmaker behind the scenes desperate for audience approval – every uncomfortable moment in the teen pregnancy story Juno is quickly smoothed over with a dose of stylized quirk, and even Up in the Air‘s harsh corporate-downsizing drama is eventually melted into goo by endless snappy one-liners and the tasteful indie tunes omnipresent on the soundtrack.
So it’s natural to be nervous when Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” sparks up on Charlize Theron’s car stereo as she drives towards her hometown during the opening credits of Young Adult. At least, it is until Theron rewinds the song and starts it again. And again. Rather than a blithe mood-setter, this alt chestnut serves here as a token of obsession, the first indication that Reitman is up to something new in his latest film. And indeed, Young Adult may be Reitman’s best film, because where he was once content to offer up a balm to audiences, he’s now willing to jolt them into unsettlement and dismay along with the critical convulsions of humor.
That first drive home in Adult is inspired by an e-mail announcement Mavis (Theron) receives from an old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). Mavis is a moderately successful children’s book ghost-writer living in the city, but the knowledge that her old beau has spawned a baby girl sends her frantically swimming upstream in an attempt to “rescue” this happily married man from his cage of domestic bliss and reclaim some shred of self-worth in the process.
Part of this futile homewrecking quest has to do with the “psychotic prom queen bitch” mindset that Mavis never grew past (and seeing as this is screenwriter Diablo Cody’s third high-school-obsessed movie, there must be at least some auto-critique here), but just as much has to do with her alcoholism, a topic that the film smartly underplays. Addiction on film tends to take the form of all-consuming destructive force (a la Requiem for a Dream) or as a character’s sole defining trait (as in upcoming sex-addiction drama Shame). Here, it’s presented in its less obvious but no less destructive form as a force that fuels bad decisions and toxic delusions even though it might leave sufferers largely untouched professionally and physically (except for her disheveled look immediately following late-night benders, Theron looks every bit a movie star here).
Most of Young Adult proceeds in a standard romantic-comedy structure laced with the strychnine of Theron’s vicious performance. For the most part, the movie doesn’t ask for much sympathy towards Mavis, rubbernecking instead at the spectacle of her one-woman train-wreck. Theron makes sure that the spectacle is an awe-inspiring one, creating a vision of thinly-veiled contempt forced occassionally into brittle smiles and backhanded praise (“It’s so inspiring to see a single mother that’s so confident on stage,” she tells a member of a local bar band). As she pursues the erstwhile jock and offends his wife, she also bonds over bourbon with a local nerd (Patton Oswalt, in the film’s most heartfelt performance) as damaged by high school as she was, albeit in a different way – he was crippled by jocks who incorrectly believed him to be gay.
Genre conventions point towards who Mavis will really end up with, but the strength of Young Adult‘s brilliant ending is that those conventions are simultaneously fulfilled and subverted. In the film’s final ten minutes, Reitman not only avoids the cheesy kind of redemption that most movies (like, for example, Up in the Air) would aim for, but he also obliterates the myth of idyllic small-town goodness that many movies (like, uh, Up in the Air) propagate, suggesting that unhealthy fantasies aren’t just in the domain of alcoholics. At the film’s close, our damaged heroine has had her delusions redoubled and thinks she has a new lease on life. The mordant joke of the film’s final shot – a headlight flickering briefly on the crushed front end of Mavis’ Mini Cooper – suggests otherwise.