Paramount // 2011 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 13th, 2012
Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.
"Guys like me are born loving women like you."
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux) is a single woman in her mid-30s. She spends most of her days watching reality television, playing Wii games and napping in her upper-class Minneapolis apartment. Every now and then, she'll buckle down and focus on her job as the ghost writer of a once-popular series of young adult novels about self-absorbed teenagers. One day, Mavis gets an e-mail containing an alarming announcement: her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser, The Good Wife) have just had a baby.
For whatever reason, this news inspires Mavis to travel to her former hometown in rural Minnesota, re-connect with good old Buddy and maybe steal him away from his wife and child. Shortly after arriving in town, Mavis bumps into former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, Big Fan), an overweight geek who was crippled in high school by a group of violent bullies. Matt is alarmed to hear about Mavis' ill-advised plan to win Buddy back, and does his best to talk her out of it. Alas, her heart seems set on getting her old boyfriend back. Will Mavis fulfill her unlikely dream?
Young Adult was directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, the same combo that gave us Juno back in 2007. This information will undoubtedly ensure that quite a few of you will never give the movie a chance. After all, Ms. Cody (a.k.a. Ms. "That's one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet") is basically the reigning champion of obnoxiously stylized, self-aware screenwriting, right? Look, I enjoyed Juno, but there's no denying that some of the film's early scenes are painful to listen to. And I'm pretty sure the number of Jennifer's Body apologists out there can be counted on one hand. However, since that time, Cody has been growing remarkably as a writer. Observe her evolution as the writer of Showtime's United States of Tara, where she grew increasingly insightful and polished with each passing season. Then check out Young Adult, which is undoubtedly the smartest, funniest and most nuanced effort of her career to date.
The frustrating thing is, the easiest way to sell you on the movie's virtue would be to spoil it for you. I certainly won't do that, but one doesn't really begin to fully appreciate what Young Adult is doing until its final reel, which smartly upends some of our expectations and cleverly distorts tired storytelling conventions. It would have been easier from a business standpoint for Reitman and Cody to take a lot of the scenes they've created and stuff them into a more traditional crowd-pleasing comedy, but they actually have some revealing and truthful things to say about these characters which can't be successfully shoehorned into a cookie cutter mold.
Charlize Theron is an enormously talented actress, but she's been miscast and misused so frequently over the course of her career. Young Adult's Mavis feels like the character she was born to play, a role she handles with naturalism and wicked humor. It's a masterful portrait of a high school prom queen who never evolved or grew after graduating high school. The qualities that made her such an endlessly popular teenager are also the qualities that have made her an insufferable adult, a case of arrested development that occasionally recalls Jason Bateman's nostalgic man-child in Juno. It's a masterful character study, but Theron wasn't nominated for an Oscar because her performance is neither needlessly showy nor based on a well-known historical figure.
The supporting players are also tremendously well-drawn. Patton Oswalt's turn as the embittered Matt rides a fine line between acerbic comedy and pathos, and Oswalt puts his easygoing charm to terrific use. "Take that, liver!" he chirps upon observing Theron downing hard liquor at a frantic pace. Somehow, he's able to find both amused bewilderment and warmth in his delivery of that little line. Matt is also a character who seems hesitant to grow in a lot of ways, but his inability to grow in certain areas is driven by pain and heartache rather than a desperate attempt to cling to the past. Patrick Wilson is quietly entertaining and convincing as a man who somehow seems to miss Mavis' toxic signals (Wilson successfully sells us on the idea that such obliviousness is just a part of Buddy's character), while Elizabeth Reaser's chipper warmth is put to terrific use as Beth.
Young Adult (Blu-ray) delivers an strong 1.78:1/1080p transfer. Reitman isn't exactly known for his awe-inspiring visual style, but his films have become progressive sharper-looking as his career has progressed. Even if there's nothing here that qualifies as a showcase sequence, the color palette, set design and cinematography are consistently engaging and impressive. Watching the film in HD, you'll catch so many little visual touches that do a lovely job of filling us in on precisely who these people are. Detail is exceptional throughout, particularly facial detail (a fact which comes in handy when it comes to observing the varied details of Theron's weary face throughout the film -- she has an amusing "all or nothing" approach to hair and makeup). Colors are vibrant and blacks are both deep and steady. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptionally quiet (the film uses silence or near-silence on quite a few occasions, and tends to take a very minimalist approach to sound design), but the sound is well-distributed and clean. Dialogue is well-captured, and a handful of boisterous soundtrack cues offer the track a welcome bit of punch now and then. Supplements are solid enough: a commentary with Reitman, cinematographer Eric Steelberg and First Assistant Director Jason A. Blumenfeld, a couple of brief but solid featurettes (the 17-minute "Misery Loves Company: The Making of Young Adult" and the 6-minute "The Awful Truth: Deconstructing a Scene"), a 46-minute Q&A with Reitman conducted by Janet Maslin (overall, the strongest and most rewarding feature of the bunch), some deleted scenes and an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Young Adult is a difficult film to classify, but an easy one to recommend. Charlize Theron delivers one of 2011's finest performances, Patton Oswalt adds yet another strong piece of work to his resume, Diablo Cody demonstrates that she has more depth and skill than she's given credit for and Jason Reitman continues to establish himself as a skillful helmer of smart, character-driven films. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy
* Official Site