The last time we saw director Jason Reitman he provided an incisive look into the life of an aging bachelor and the consequences of the lifestyle in Up in the Air. Reitman’s latest film Young Adult, with a screenplay by Juno writer Diablo Cody, is a similar analysis of solitude approaching middle age. This time around, it involves more booze, trashy television, and denial.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a ghost writer for a once-popular young adult book series who is in a life funk. She drinks herself to sleep and grimaces when she sees her latest one night stand in the light of day and without the alcohol-induced haze. Mavis thus decides it’s a grand idea to chase her old high school flame Buddy Slade, who is now married and has a baby. Back in her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, she bumps into high school acquaintance Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who tries to steer the tunnel-visioned Mavis away from disaster. Mavis slathers herself in makeup, slips into dresses befitting an outing to the club for lunch at a sports bar with Slade, and practically huffs the scent of her high school honey when they hug. No man, woman, or child is going to get in the way of her nostalgic fantasy.
Unlike the previous Reitman pictures, the protagonist here is her own antagonist. Mavis Gary regularly proves herself to be a terrible human being as she waxes on about getting Buddy to divorce his wife and never fails to keep her nose up when interacting with anyone in Mercury. It’s to Charlize Theron’s credit that Mavis remains amusing enough that we don’t immediately reject her snotty, primped character; Theron soft-pedals the mean girl vibe so we’re not overwhelmed with simmering spite. Patton Oswalt is an important balancing element, regularly injecting rationality and humanity to counteract Mavis’s flaming trainwreck mentality. Considering he’s just “a fat geek”, the man steals Theron’s thunder via naked earnestness.
Should anyone be concerned that the Diablo Cody credit means they’ll be subjected to over-the-top “I’m so cool!” dialogue à la her previous hit Juno, rest easy, since Cody’s script lobs laughs through the mundane insanity of Mavis and her reality. Cody’s script, Reitman’s quiet direction, and Theron and Oswalt all grant it a surprising degree of reality.
SPOILERS ABOUT ENDING, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
What pushes the film off kilter, though, is its conclusion. Despite Mavis hitting bottom and heading for her “life lesson learned” moment, she’s steered off course by Matt’s sister who reminds her that Mercury sucks, she’s awesome, fuck this place. This speech erases any soul-searching Mavis might have performed in the wake of an embarrassing scene at Buddy Slade’s house.
None of this would be troublesome if Reitman himself didn’t seem to support this character’s decision to continue to be a self-absorbed alcoholic. The film ends with a lively, upbeat soundtrack as she goes back to “The Mini-Apple” as the same brat she was when she left. Remove the soundtrack and her departure from Mercury would mirror her trip to the town at the film’s beginning: as a sad lonely woman with delusions spinning in her mind. The musical choice for the closing feels like studio intervention, forcing us to emotionally consider her decision an uplifting one despite all the evidence to the contrary, and it’s a volcanic zit on a largely flawless drama.
Of all of Reitman’s films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air), this might rank the lowest, but despite issues with the conclusion and grotesque product placement, it’s a funny drama that speaks to the power of home, nostalgia, and the upsides to growing up – even if some of us refuse to do so.