The dangers of false advertising: ‘Young Adult’ review

I broke my self-imposed Young Adult review embargo only a few days after the film came out late last year, but I still didn’t expect the prevailing sentiment from most reviews (much darker than intimated in trailer!) to be so, well, spot-on when I watched the film for the first time yesterday.

I was sooooo excited to watch this film when the trailer first came out. Wry humor, funky music, Patrick Wilson, Charlize Theron acting like a class-A-biotch in one of those classic-beautiful-movie-star-who-gives-off-inexplicable-bitchy-vibes-outbitches-herself-in-larger-than-life-film-role.

But my oh my, what a textbook case of false advertising! Lo and behold Young Adult is not a comedy. I did not laugh once. I winced a lot. I felt kind of sad. And then I rolled my eyes. 

Diablo Cody, in that rare pantheon of Hollywood screenwriters who non Hollywood industry types actually know, was obviously trying to take a few risks here. She wanted to make a film about a particuarly loathsome character type: the beautiful, mean-spirited popular girl. Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary has no redeeming qualities. She makes a living writing truly awful tween literature, the kind of stuff that in another economy perhaps might end up becoming hit TV on the CW. She is selfish.  She goes back to her rural Minnesota town to win over her married high school sweetheart. In the trailer, this is the stuff of dark comedy gold, a better Bad Teacher perhaps.

In actuality, it’s the stuff of cringe-inducing, rubbernecking mehness posturing as something more. In contrast to the inundation of male anti-heroes clogging up our pop culture, we still haven’t quite come to terms with female anti-heroes  as a society. By writing a movie that revolves around the petty machinations of a tall, beautiful blond woman, Cody seems to be attempting to say something about our society’s lousy double standards. There’s a sense in which Cody is really trying to dare the viewer to keep watching even as Mavis drains our empathy. But the cruelty is too blunt, too heavy-handed, the symbolism too obvious.

Patton Oswalt, for example, gives a great performance as Freehauf, Mavis’s random friend, their meeting and subsequent friendship itself an unfortunate cliche in the genre of unlikely buddy movies, but his backstory (mild spoiler alert)–three jocks smash his penis and leg when he’s in high school with a crowbar– is way too ripped-from-the-headlines to feel real. [Insert something about author Tim O’Brien’s story-truth vs. real truth].

We’re meant to believe via Mavis’s frantic hair pulling and occasional lines that blatantly reveal her current emotional state, that Mavis is mentally unstable: “What about people who don’t feel anything?” asks Mavis to her ex boyfriend’s current wife, a special ed teacher who teaches autistic children how to tap into their emotions. Get it, viewer, Mavis is actually talking about herself!

Theron is the main reason to watch; she’s riveting. She does a lot of great acting with that fine, fine face of hers. She squints her eyes, purses her lip and reveals a flurry of subtext and emotional transparency to the viewer as a result. Also, standup comedian Oswalt makes his serious-film debut in classy, stellar fashion.

But then there’s the ending. After the inevitable, expertly-acted, ‘don’t do it!’ public breakdown, Mavis has humiliation sex with Freehauf, and a bizarre conversation with his sister, in which his sister tells Mavis that everyone in their small town is fat and dumb and that Mavis should go back to Minneapolis  as the star that she is. I find it very hard to believe that Freehauf’s sister would say that in the first place, but then the movie gets more ridiculous.

Mavis actually takes Freehauf’s sister to heart and basically seems content to return to Minneapolis the way she was when she left.

It’s a rushed ending and a false ending, one that seems incompatible with the broken Mavis of the night before. I’m not arguing that all movies must make their protagonists change, but in this case, it’s hard to shake the, “So what was the point?” sense hovering over this story. The movie ends up feeling like a hypothetical exercise: What would happen if I made a movie about a very unsympathetic beautiful white woman… The ending prevents the film from reaching whatever great potential was there.

It’s still worth watching though, at least for the performances. But you’ve been warned. There’s really no comedy here.

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