Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Young Adult (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Young Adult

High school spawns monsters. Too many things can happen. You can be bullied, made an outsider, labelled a nerd or somehow more demeaning, not labelled at all, merely forgettable.

Director Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed "Ghostbusters" is well versed in cataloging our society's demons from the habit of smoking (Thank You for Smoking) to professional  travellers (Up in the Air). There is an argument to be made that this is the world we live in, and like a cinematic Boccaccio, Jason Reitman is  holding up a picaresque mirror and letting us peer inside, to gaze at  his motley cast of ne'er do wells and see ourselves. 
As a director with a family background that was the epitome of 80s pop culture made famous by Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray, Jason Reitman is no doubt familiar with the feel-good canon of teenage comedies, the Day Glo legacies of John Hughes,  Richard Donner and  silly scare-meister Joe Dante. But rather than keep the tone of his predecessors, Reitman subverts. His comedy is more in keeping with "South Park", than "The Burbs" (1989)
In his latest, "Young Adult" Reitman  turns his camera on one  mascara-eyed monster raised to wreak havoc in a petri dish of high school hostility.  The vexing trouble in question is a woman, Mavis Gary, played wondrously with heart and horror, softness and shock by none other than Charlize Theron.
From the very first moment, we know we're in for it. Mavis' room is cluttered and unkempt with soiled clothes and liquor bottles. Her ordinary condo apartment looks dirty and gray, as if left out in the rain. Mavis although pretty, is no knockout. She scratches her belly, chugs Coke and has a bloated belly.
This is a homecoming queen with her hourglass figure knocked loose and put upside down. Mavis' smile seems stitched into a frown. 
She is an angry Barbie.
Semi-professionally, Mavis is a ghostwriter for Young Adult books, soon to be cancelled. One morning she gets a late email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend's baby. There is no ink for the printer and she uses her own spit to liquify the ink. Theron makes the act of drooling at once shocking and sad: a one time starry-eyed woman reduced to spitting to make her obsolete technology work.
Abruptly, Mavis gets the idea to hit the road and get back with her boyfriend Buddy, played to generic perfection by Patrick Wilson.
Theron's obsessive role is sneaky, subtle and refreshingly, never top-heavy. She worms her way into Buddy's life not by being wired and electric, but rather she is offhand, nonchalant and loose limbed. Mavis simply asks to hang out and catch up. We get the sense that if Buddy said no, Mavis would have gone on her way. This makes the mounting apprehension and comedy all the more arresting. 
This is not to say that Mavis doesn't lose her cool. She obsessively preens and makes beauty appointments. Perfect nail polish adds glare to her appearance, but Mavis's face is often drained of color-- a dissipated snow queen Everything is half empty.
Patton Oswalt also stars as the disenfranchised Matt who although once violently beaten and cynical, has the most positive attitude of all the characters.  By moving thru life and not holding any grudges and freely making fun of jealousies between the disabled, Oswalt almost steals the  struggle from Theron. His wandering shifty shuffle of Matt, an average guy  who became a punching bag, but still retains his  wiles, has a steady understated energy.
Reitman has courage in this film. "Young Adult" is what "Bad Teacher" should have been. Rather than care about pat endings, Reitman  shows real people unabashedly admitting that they don't like each other without punchlines. He makes the uncomfortable funny when so many other comedies miss out or refuse to portray people as are, complete with shades of gray. This in itself is liberating. 

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