Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Young Adult

This year may as well be dubbed the year of great female performances in otherwise mediocre films.  Viola Davis (and Jessica Chastain) in The Help, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Anjelica Huston in 50/50 and, if early reviews are any indication, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.

Okay, to be fair, a good number of these films surpass mediocrity, but the point I’m trying to make is that all of these performances far exceed the movies they are in. And that’s a pretty accurate way to describe Charlize Theron’s flawless work in Jason Reitman’s good film, Young Adult.

Mavis Gary is a complete and utter bitch, a label that is self-described and shared by others all the same. She’s crude, manipulative, beyond selfish, and only interested in getting whatever she wants whenever she wants it, which, for the film’s purposes, is her high school flame, Buddy.

When Mavis, who makes a living as a successful ghost writer for a popular young adult book series, finds out that Buddy is a recent father, she leaves Minneapolis for a self-imposed reunion in the small Minnesota town where she grew up. Once in town, she stops at nothing to win Buddy’s heart back; lying, drinking, wheeling and dealing her way though sneakily vicious encounter after sneakily vicious encounter.

Mavis, you see, is completely delusional. There were a few times during the film when I seriously questioned her sanity. She’s obviously psychologically unwell, but her honest delusions of grandeur come off, at times, as wildly schizophrenic. This isn’t a fault of the film, mind you, simply because there is a heavy-hitting ass kicker at the helm.

As Mavis, Charlize Theron delivers her best performance since Monster, which is to say, the second best performance she’s ever done.  Mavis is a character that is so far beyond the point of redemption, that it makes it impossible to not appreciate Theron’s work a great deal. It’s a huge risk – taking on a character that no one is expected to like, but Theron nails it with bewildered gusto.  There are many scenes I could discuss in praise of the performance, but one that must be mentioned is Mavis’ inevitable public flip out. We’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but the way Theron plays it is honestly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Anything less than an Oscar nomination would be insulting.
Young Adult, it must be said, is the best thing Diablo Cody has ever written. Although she (undeservedly, in my opinion) won an Oscar for her Juno screenplay, her witty banter has never suited her characters better than it does in Young Adult. The dialogue she provides Theron, as well as Patton Oswalt (as Mavis' unlikely friend), and Patrick Wilson (as the innocent Buddy), works perfectly.

Now, while Theron’s performance should be more than enough to get you in the theater, it is far more accomplished than the film itself. Jason Reitman knows how to make good movies; he’s done it twice, with Thank You For Smoking and Juno, and achieved greatness once, with Up in the Air.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Young Adult, but it is a film that relies solely on its lead performance to hold your interest. I saw the movie two days ago and cannot think to comment on its score, cinematography, production design, etc. It’s a good film, but no match for its leading lady’s wit. B


  1. I don't mind bad movies if they are bearable because of a really good acting performance. Another one is Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face; in general, I didn't love the film, but Liv Ullmann's acting performance is nothing short of astonishing!

  2. @Tyler That is the final goddamn major Bergman film I have to see. I bought it a month ago, probably gonna watch it this weekend.

  3. Great review! I really want to see this film, I'ma dog person and I saw there is a cute little pomeranian there + Theron's performance looks really good.

  4. @Sati. Thanks! I love dogs too, and the one here is insanely sweet. Theron's performance is, maybe, a tad better.

  5. Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review Alex.

  6. @Dan O. I completely agree on all fronts. Thanks for reading/commenting Dan!

  7. In my eyes, this was Reitman's first misstep. I haven't looked at newer work, but based on Rotten Tomatoes scores, I may not want to.

    1. I actually love this one the more I watch it. Everything about it works for me now. So weird. Men, Women and Children, however, is honestly one of the worst films I've ever seen.