Young Adult, the latest not-quite-a-comedy penned by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, is an odd piece. Billed as a comedy, performed as a drama, and probably looked at by us as a tragedy, it’s a film that plays out about as inconsistently as a motion picture can, while still managing to be interesting and kind of enjoyable. It’s a mess, one in which scenes exist for one specific purpose and relate only tangentially to the ones that precede and follow, but a film that’s worth seeing regardless because of the performances turned in by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.
Theron plays the lead, a women who wrote a series of young adult novels, Mavis Gary. She hates her life, that is clear, although the reason behind this hatred is not initially clear. She drinks Coke to wake herself up, writes as few words as possible while ignoring calls from the publisher, and just tries to get by. When her high school sweetheart sends her a photo of his new baby — which she claims is only done to insult her — she decides to head back to her hick hometown in hopes of winning him back.
Before she meets him for the first time in years, she runs into the person who had a locker beside her in high school, Matt (Patton Oswalt). He, limping due to an assault which left his legs and another appendage shatter, continues to show up throughout the film, and seems like the perfect match for her. Of course, that would be clichéd, and Young Adult doesn’t want to be that. It wants us to not look at it like a movie, but like real life. She is a disturbed person and her single focus is on Buddy (Patrick Wilson), the ex she can’t get over.
The rest of the film consists of scenes in which Marvis shows us how crazy she really is, or when she tries to act normal to seduce Buddy. That’s about it. She’s presented as a selfish, childish person — who uses real life events to write her story and in turn uses that to process the real life events — and that’s where the “dark” part of our comedy comes from. We’re supposed to find some of her antics funny, because they’re not something that a sane person would do. The sympathizing is what’s missing, despite the final act’s attempts to make us care.
See, when she’s presented as so unlikable for the first 2/3 of the movie, a quick turnaround is kind of impossible. She can’t just become worthy of sympathy with the snap of your fingers, but that’s what Young Adult wants us to believe. For the first 70 minutes or so, Marvis is the selfish, alcoholic crazy person that the trailer shows you. But then, in the last twenty minutes, we’re supposed to start caring about her — even though she hasn’t changed much.
And then there’s the fact that even after she realizes that she has to change her life for the better, she soon comes to the conclusion that, no, that would be silly. There’s a life-changing conversation that she has with Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), in which she learns how everyone else is jealous of her because she actually escaped this town and did something with her life. She makes a few stunning (to her) realizations in this chat … before going back on all of them and continuing on the way she was going. And we’re supposed to care because it’s clear that she’s ill.
As a character study, Young Adult works. Marvis is interesting and has a few different layers that get peeled back as the film progresses, and some of the things that she says are funny. It’s not a prerequisite to like the main character, after all. But when the film tries to change its tone in its final portion to get us to care, and it can’t make us because of how well-established its character already is, it ultimately doesn’t work.
There are, admittedly, a couple of funny moments. That was the same case in Juno, Cody’s most famous project. I laughed more and more as Young Adult progressed, actually, as it grew on me. But then the tone shifted, and I couldn’t enjoy it anymore. And all of that leads up to an anticlimactic finish, which, because the movie doesn’t want to be formulaic, makes sense. It’s not enjoyable and it certainly doesn’t resolve anything, but it makes sense in terms of the story and film structure.
What keeps it all together is the performances. Theron does a fantastic job reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner, here playing a woman with more tics and problems than most out there. And Patton Oswalt draws the most sympathy, playing the more relatable character whose high school career wasn’t glamorous. Patrick Wilson continues to be charismatic as the stalking target, and Elizabeth Reaser gets an under-appreciated role as Beth, Buddy’s wife. Oh, and you’ll be surprised to hear J.K. Simmons’ voice in a cameo role in a Jason Reitman film. Very, very surprised.
Young Adult is a mess of a movie that ultimately works because it has a few moments of humor, and a very strong cast. It works, for the most part, as a character study, but when it tries to make us care about the lead, it fails. It portrays her as unlikable for that majority of the time and then tries to turn it around way too late at the end. It’s kind of fun, kind of sweet, and only kind of worth your time.