I am a huge fan of Jason Reitman and I have seen all of his movies. I think he is one of the most skilled young directors of this generation. And I still have a special place in my heart for his funny, touching comedy Juno. So I was very excited when he decided to direct another movie by Juno scribe Diablo Cody. The result was Young Adult, a movie as polished as it is pointless.
The plot centers around Mavis, played by the talented Charlize Theron (This is the 3rd Theron movie in a row I have reviewed. That woman has been busy!). Mavis is a ghost-writer for a young adult series of novels. She lives a life that I think some college students imagine adult life should be. She eats junk, plays video games, has meaningless hookups and goes shopping whenever she wants. She is completely free. But when she finds out her high school boyfriend has just had a baby, she decides to travel to her hometown to win him back. While in town, she meets and hangs out with a high school classmate Matt, played by Patton Oswald.
I write “hangs out with” rather than “befriends” because Mavis does not seem capable of making actual friends. Everyone around her is simply a means to her end, including Matt. Matt was mistaken for gay in high school and was horribly beaten, leaving him permanently crippled. Or as Theron puts it, “Oh, you're the hate crime guy!”
If the plot seems horrible, it is. Thankfully, the filmmakers never have you root for Mavis. She is a horrible person who sets out to do a horrible thing. But because Mavis is so awful, the movie falls horribly flat. We are meant to judge her, hate her, and in turn pity her. There are reasons for her arrested development, but making her the protaganist means that we cannot attach to the journey. Like an Alexander Payne movie, the characters really do not grow or learn from their mistakes. Mavis is smart and sometimes very funny, but she is too self-centered. She is the dark side of Juno MacGuff who was also smart, funny, and self-centered, but came to realize that her actions had consequences and learned from those mistakes. Mavis is not as mature.
The performances are excellent, however. Theron plays the part perfectly and without sympathy. Patton Oswald does a dramatic turn here as someone who could have easily been simply “the Good Guy,” but instead shows a vulnerability and a dark side that shows that maybe he is just as messed up as Mavis but cannot get away with his horribly behavior because he is a schlubby loser. Reitman keeps the story flowing and makes it visually interesting. He has a talent for getting us into the heads of flawed people. But Mavis is too far gone for us to care.
In Thank You For Smoking, Reitman made the mendacious Nick Naylor sympathetic by making all of his enemies as bad as himself.
In Juno, the main character finds happiness only when she stops putting herself first.
And in Up in the Air, George Clooney's Ryan Bingham was like Theron's Mavis, but Reitman let us see how life began to open and change for him. But Mavis' enemies are all good people and she is not open to looking beyond herself and changing.
This could be a good character study as to how selfishness leads to unhappiness. Mavis cannot understand how anyone in her hometown could be happy with family and friends and good jobs and simple pleasures. Her self-indulgence blinds her to the higher happiness all around her. In fact she and Matt resent people who are happier than they. It reminds me of the dwarves from CS Lewis' The Last Battle. They surrounded by happiness and beauty, but they refuse to open their eyes and accept it. I think that is true of all of us and our particular vices and indulgences. We sometimes can't imagine living without them and so we imagine those without them are missing out. But like Mavis, we will remain empty so long as we keep trying to fill that bottomless void we call the ego.
2 out of 5 stars.