(Dir: Jason Reitman, 2011)
Young Adult has the credentials of a potentially good, interesting film. Jason Reitman is in the directors chair and this, his fourth feature, follows on from the Oscar nominated and really rather good Up In the Air. Diablo Cody wrote the script, and after the misfire that was Jennifer’s Body she needs to prove that Juno wasn’t a fluke. Charlize Theron is cast as the lead – an ever reliable and interesting actress who I think most forget won an Oscar back in 2004 for Monster. And supporting are Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt, both of whom are dependable. So this should be good right?
Unfortunately the answer is not really, the blame for which I put on the shoulders of the story and script. We’re introduced to Mavis (Charlize Theron), who is a reasonably successful writer of young adult fiction. She escaped the small town she’s from, but even in her mid thirties doesn’t appear to have fully grown up. We join her at the point of almost mid-life crisis when she decides she should return to her hometown to get back together with Buddy, her high-school sweetheart, who is now happily married and with a newborn baby. On her return she also runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), one of the geeks from her year at school, whom she now begrudgingly befriends.
Both Theron and Oswalt are well cast – Theron plays Mavis with a sense of teen like ignorance, flitting between the slobbish and the stunning, but always with a sense of entitlement and arrogance. It is a very good performance. Oswalt is thoroughly believable as Matt, who similarly doesn’t appear to have moved on that much from his teenage years, but is stymied by an event from the past and the resulting physical defect.
Unfortunately good acting is not enough to save a film when the lead character is so unlikeable. Mavis’ petulance does very little to ingratiate her with the audience. You just want to shake her and tell her to grow up and stop acting like a delusional idiot, as well as wanting to see her fail on this mission she’s on to win Buddy back as it’s such a ridiculous idea. Yes it’s in fitting with the character, but there’s no way we can root for her. It’s even more implausible because Buddy’s character is so thinly drawn - he loves his wife and new baby but is exhausted as all new parents are. That's pretty much all we get, and we can’t see for ourselves why it's worth going to all this effort to win him back. Clearly they had something in the past but there's no tangible evidence beyond knowing it was teenage love. This is no fault of Patrick Wilson, there just isn’t enough in the character for him to work with.
It’s difficult to comment on Jason Reitman’s direction when it serves such an inanely frustrating story. There is a visual symmetry to his previous films in that he knows how to make America’s second or third tier cities look dull and mundane, focusing on their hotels, apartment blocks and retail parks. There’s definitely an effective soulless reality to that, but it does little to lift the film.
Ultimately Young Adult is a great example of how good acting can’t save a film when the story is dull and uninspired. It doesn’t even offer much humour, which is something that could’ve made a difference in negating the unlikeability of the lead character. It seems to be one of those films where an inability to relate to the characters and their actions and situations completely hampers enjoyment. As I was in this position I found very little to like about Young Adult and would struggle to recommend it to anyone, unless of course they think they can see a little bit of themselves in Mavis.