Friday, January 6, 2012

Badly behaved

In Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a marginally famous Minneapolis-based author of a series of novels for teenagers (her name’s only on the inside; the original creator’s on the cover). The series is coming to an end, she’s blocked on writing the last installment, she’s divorced, and she’s an alcoholic. Receiving an email blast that her now-married high school boyfriend is a new father, she gets it in her head to drive back to her home town of Mercury, where he still lives, and steal him back, on the fuzzy basis that this might provide a kind of rebooting.

Off to St. Albert

I saw the movie on December 22nd, the day before flying out to St. Albert, Alberta for Christmas, and I must say that for a movie that’s not actually about St. Albert, Alberta, it captures the essence of the place especially well (I’m glad I didn’t watch it while I was there – it would just have been too depressing). Some of this is relatively easy stuff – the parade of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut on the way into town. But the movie, written by Diablo Cody, frequently catches you with more subtle observation. When Mavis checks into the hotel, one of the first things she does is to plunk down her laptop on the desk and pull out the extensible USB cord: I’ve done that dozens of times myself, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in a movie before.

The dialogue, also, frequently justifies Cody’s reputation. I loved an exchange where a local woman, who’s secretly admired (maybe even loved) Mavis ever since school, denounces everything about Mercury, saying the people there might as well be dead. For Mavis it’s the right insight at the right time, and her gratitude for it is genuine, but when the woman imagines she might get out, Mavis summarily rejects the idea. It’s not that she’s being consciously cruel (not at that actual moment anyway); it’s that the idea lies so far outside her plausible frame of reference, it’s not even worth considering. In nineteen out of twenty American movies, Mavis would feel an obligation to let the woman down more easily, but that only reflects how seldom America’s increasingly brutal sense of strain finds expression in the cinema.

Hate Crime Guy

Mavis isn’t actually that young an adult – she’s closing in on forty – but the title cleverly evokes how the traditional markers of full maturity are increasingly unattainable now, with arrested development becoming a national condition. In Mercury they imagine she’s got it made, but their sense of the world seems to stop at Minneapolis: they don’t know, as we do – from the film’s opening seconds – that she lives in an unprepossessing apartment in an ugly building, without much of a view. And who has any idea what being “an author” really means?

Everything I’ve described so far is just great, and explains why I liked Young Adult more than any of Reitman’s previous films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air). Even so, its overall success is limited, for various reasons. Mavis is played by Charlize Theron, who’s terrific in the role, but also gorgeous beyond any normal parameters, especially for someone who seemingly abuses herself so badly. Her fixation on the old boyfriend, although ultimately explained in a way that makes more psychological sense than it initially seemed to, is still a major contrivance. And then there’s the third major character, Matt, a guy she runs into at a local dive, and barely remembers even though he had the locker next to hers all through high school, until it clicks that he’s the “hate crime guy,” permanently disabled from being beaten up by a bunch of guys who thought he was gay (which at least got him some minor fame until people found out he wasn’t gay, so that it wasn’t a hate crime anymore); after that she starts coming to his house every night to get hammered, even if (or of course, to some degree, because) he’s the only one telling her the truth about herself. Here too, no problems with Patton Oswalt’s performance, but however distinctively written and played, the character has a sitcom-friendly convenience about him.

Simply Insane

Matt describes his ongoing sexual dysfunction so vividly that when the movie actually throws him a sex scene, you might feel deprived for not getting to see more of the mechanics of how (or whether) it works, in the way of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in Coming Home. What I mean, more broadly, is that Young Adult ultimately isn’t turbulent enough. The main objection to the film in the reviews I’ve read is that Mavis just isn’t likeable enough to be the focus of a film; conversely, see this as a sign of courage. Roger Ebert, zooming in on her self-description as an alcoholic, says: “civilians (and some of the critics writing about this film) are slow to recognize alcoholism. On the basis of what we see her drinking on the screen, she must be more or less drunk in every scene… alcoholism explains a lot of things: her single status, her disheveled apartment, her current writer's block, her lack of self-knowledge, her denial, her inappropriate behavior. Diablo Cody was wise to include it; without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane.”

Others in turn, quite rightly, took issue with the notion of “simply” being “insane.” And of course, alcoholism doesn’t remotely “explain” someone being single; you might as well reverse the two, and say being single explains alcoholism. The reference to Diablo Cody’s wisdom in including this “explanation” suggests Ebert views a good movie as a kind of exercise in connecting the dots. But that’s only possible if the dots were too easily spaced to begin with. It might have been unfortunate that in recent weeks I’d watched several films by the European director Andrzej Zulawski, all of them studies of extreme behaviour of one kind or another. At their best, you ride along in gorgeous delirium; at their worst, you just wonder what the hell’s going on and count the minutes. I don’t really think Young Adult needed a touch of the Zulawski exactly – that would hardly be true to Mercury, or to St. Albert. But ultimately it’s limited by excessive tidiness. As I mentioned, for more people all the time, being an adult, young or otherwise, isn’t everything it used to be. It’s not just the post-baby boomers, stuck with the bill for their retired parents, but everything that’s coming up behind: the angst across the developed world about youth unemployment and the threat of a lost generation. Maybe we’re reaching the dire point where for many people, living in America (or Canada, or Britain, or Greece…) will “explain” being an alcoholic. We could use some films about that. I mean, badly-behaved ones.

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