Jason Reitman, prior to this year, had directed three films: Thank You For Smoking in 2006, Juno in 2007 and Up In the Air in 2009. Each of them was my favorite movie of their respective year. His fourth film, Young Adult? You can't win 'em all, I guess.
The film reunites Reitman with Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and returns the action to Minnesota, Juno's home state (and, originally, mine.) What's missing is any semblance of a compelling story, as well as the wit and humanity that marked Reitman's first three pictures.
It's being advertised as a comedy, but I don't remember there being any laughs. At least Cody, honest to blog, mostly holds off on the tiresome catchphrases this time.
Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis, one of the more despicable and repulsive movie protagonists in recent memory. Recently divorced, depressed and a hardcore alcoholic, Mavis works as a ghostwriter of a fading series of young adult novels.
Upon receiving an emailed birth announcement from her now-married high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), Theron comes up with the bizarre scheme of returning to her hometown and attempting to steal him back from his wife and new baby. Along the way she comes across, and begins spending time with, a dorky, handicapped high school classmate (Patton Oswalt) who she doesn't remember.
Oswalt, by far, is the best thing about the movie, and Young Adult's two or three most standout scenes involve his character.
A real-life nerd hero who's both an outstanding standup comic and the author of this year's sublime book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, he's on quite a career roll and here delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. I would much rather watch a movie about his character than Theron's.
Now it's certainly possible for a good movie to have an utterly vile character at its center, providing this person goes about their awful things in a compelling way. But Young Adult goes nowhere – it just sort of beats us over the head with Theron's loathsomeness, repeatedly showing her saying and doing unspeakable things. The problem is, with the exception of Oswalt, none of the other characters are really characters at all, so we have trouble caring about their reactions.
Wilson's character, especially, is a cipher; all we really learn about him is that he's a pretty good husband and father and, because he doesn't realize after three or four scenes that Theron is screamingly, obviously, throwing herself at him, kind of an dim bulb, too.
Now, a few words from a native on the movie's Minnesotan aspect: The fictional small town of Mercury and all of the people in it are looked down upon with utter disdain by Mavis, who lives in downtown Minneapolis, a juxtaposition that I found hilarious because I know for a fact that it actually exists.
It sort of reminded me of the old Onion headline, "Rural Nebraskan Not Sure He Could Handle Frantic Pace Of Omaha."
But is the film itself doing the same thing?
I don't quite see the movie's treatment of its Minnesotan characters as condescension; I've seen worse, especially the odious 2009 Renee Zellweger comedy New in Town, which treated people from Minnesota as though they were functionally retarded. But while Young Adult passes the condescension test, it doesn't quite achieve realism.
Then there's a really strange and bizarre monologue near the end by Oswalt's sister (Colette Wolfe) in which she denounces everyone in her home town as "fat and stupid," and points out that "people are so happy, when they have so little."
Except it makes little sense – everything we see of Mercury makes it look like a vibrant place, with lots of functioning, crowded businesses, and no, not every character we see is fat or stupid; they're not in poverty either.
There's also the problem of not a single one of characters having anything resembling a Midwestern accent, no one wearing Vikings or Twins clothes, no one being outwardly Lutheran or Norwegian. There was nothing resembling that great, true moment in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man in which the Jewish protagonist is visibly intimidated by his gentile, crew-cutted, gun-toting neighbor.
Strange that Reitman, who grew up in Los Angeles as the son of Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghostbusters, has made small town Midwestern life a focus of three of his first four films, although Cody lived in Minneapolis for years.
But I digress. Young Adult is ultimately a disappointment because it has a loathsome protagonist who it can't make us care about. Will Jason Reitman ever direct a great movie again? I'm pretty sure he will.
The Silver Screen Rating – Young Adult: 2 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits – Young Adult; Directed by Jason Reitman and starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, and Elizabeth Reiser. Rated R; 1 hour, 34 minutes.