Sometimes movies take themselves far too seriously for their own good. Writers will come up with ridiculous premises that directors play a bit too straight in hopes that the film ends up saying something meaningful about the human condition. Young Adult is one such film. The latest project from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody – teaming up again after their award-winning partnership on Juno – thinks it’s cleverer than it really is. There’s a great screwball comedy buried beneath the surface of this affair, but it’s mired in an awkward tragicomic tone devoid of any dramatic stakes and an off-putting, condescending tone that doesn’t befit a film whose main character is already too full of herself to begin with.
Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, an arrogant and brash 37-year-old ghostwriter of a popular series of young adult novels. She’s on the verge of losing her job due to the waning popularity of her books and stuck with a nasty case of writer’s block brought on by her inability to think of an ending to the series. The selfish Mavis returns to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to reconnect with one of her muses. She seeks out the happily married Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), with hopes of stealing him away from his goody two-shoes wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and reclaiming some of the self-esteem that has declined along the way.
The base of the plot feels somewhat autobiographical for Cody, whose writing style has progressed to one of… well, a young adult. The previously teen-centric dialogue of her two previous films is not on display here. For better or worse, the adults in this story talk like adults without necessarily acting like them. Mavis is a thoroughly loathsome and petulant child, while Buddy seems to have barely progressed from his days as an absent minded, but good natured jock.
Despite Mavis’ standing as a popular author, Cody’s love of all things pop culture falls to actor Patton Oswalt, playing a kind, sarcastic and misunderstood nerd with a limp named Matt. Despite being the kind of character that Cody has been taken to task for creating in the past, Oswalt delivers easily the best performance of the film simply because he seems to understand that Matt is the only character audiences will ever truly have a hope of identifying with.
Theron is fine as the Diet Coke swigging and KFC frequenting anti-hero of the story, and while the point isn’t to like or sympathize with the character, Cody and Reitman don’t even bother trying to give the actual plot of the story any dramatic thrust. The film is essentially dead on arrival from the opening sequences of Mavis in her crappy Minneapolis apartment doing absolutely nothing for about ten full minutes. Then the opening titles come up and we’re treated to another five or six minutes of nothing while the character listens to the same song on repeat in her car (on cassette, naturally, because there has to be a precious nod to indie quirk in this film somewhere). The film then jarringly settles into scenes of blunted misanthropy as Mavis tries enacting her selfish plans, but it mostly just consists of dressing slutty and spouting tired double entendres and pick up lines. It’s a very slight idea to hang a movie off of, but it could work if the comedy or the drama bothered to go the extra mile. Unfortunately this story goes absolutely nowhere interesting or new with it until late in the third act when a plot twist comes in that’s simply far too little too late.
While Cody seems to be writing her best approximation of a Sofia Coppola film (it’s essentially Lost in Translation + slut jokes – any signs of life), she fares better than director Reitman who seems incredibly out of his element here. Apparently Reitman thinks ennui means “to film everything as blandly as possible in natural lighting.” Young Adult is a very ugly and harsh looking film, which might have something to do with Mavis’ return to her strip mall-lined suburban town. Unfortunately, Reitman’s ham-fisted stabs at social commentary simply come in the form of lingering shots of KFC’s and Staples locations. (Side note: There’s a disturbing amount of product placement in this film.)
Much like the pulpy trash churned out by the principal of the film, Young Adult is shallow, soulless, and easily forgettable. The performances of Theron and Oswalt carry the film almost single-handedly and provide what few laughs there are to be had, but they can’t salvage this misguided effort from two genuinely talented filmmakers. Reitman and Cody are usually quite reliable (in my eyes, anyway, but I know there are many people who would ague the contrary), but there’s little entertainment value to their latest effort. It doesn’t aim for laughs and it doesn’t aim for the cerebral. It aims for “whatever” and hits it dead on. But, you know, if that’s the kind of thing that you want then, you know, whatever.