I walked into Young Adult secretly hoping it would suck. I hate Diablo Cody. If you don't know who she is, she's the writer behind the overrated Juno, the mind-numbingly stupid Jennifer's Body, and the ridiculous, over-acted, and just plain implausible The United States of Tara, which is essentially Toni Collette (a normally fine actress) mugging along to a ludicrous premise of a housewife suffering from split personalities, one of which includes a teenage girl, replete with sassy backtalk, thong, and gum snapping. I saw one fucking episode of that show while awaiting trial in Miami and decided I'd rather be subjected to a Three's a Crowd marathon or have a bullet put in my head, and not necessarily in that order.
Diablo Cody got a lot of press around the time of Juno for having once been a stripper. I don't know how long she was a stripper for, but I'm guessing about a week while in college. Media outlets love stories like this. Like Kurt Warner's stocking groceries before being plucked from obscurity and leading the Rams to the Super Bowl. It's bullshit (http://tinyurl.com/23e97kh). I don't trust Cody's account, and I sure as shit don't trust anyone else's. I've known my share of strippers. And Cody ain't one of them.
I don't know who she is or what she does, what she did or who she was, but I'll tell you this: she can goddamn fucking write.
I hate having to write that. I really really do. If, like Morrissey says, we hate it when our friends become successful, what's it say about strangers we loathe who pull it off? In my pantheon of the underserving, I had her slotted somewhere between Junot Diaz and the Lyte Funky Ones.
Just kidding. I actually think LFO had some talent.
I thought Juno was OK, nowhere near as deserving of the indie darling status it garnered among the skinny-jeaned set. And I already told you how much I hated her projects (though of course one should watch Jennifer's Body for the 20-second make-out scene between Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox). I'd heard good things about Young Adult, so the wife and I went on an afternoon date yesterday. Because we have a kid now, and nighttime dates are rumors.
Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, an middling YA ghost writer with poor personal hygiene and a stunted maturity, who lives in a shitty Minneapolis apartment with her Pomeranian, and spends most of her day watching crappy reality TV (which I suppose is redundant). One day, after receiving the birth notice from an ex-boyfriend, Buddy, (played by Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Beth, who live in her hometown of Marvel, MN, which she reviles, Mavis decides all her problems stem from having lost Buddy in high school. It's an irrational, impulsive thought that runs the risk of playing out like a convenient plot device. Yet, when this decision is made, after knowing Mavis for about five minutes, the audience totally buys the move. That Cody and director Jason Reitman pull this off with a few, mostly isolated scenes is a testament to the power of understatement, the economy of language and pristine direction. And fucking good acting.
It was a ballsy choice having Theron play the lead, since part of the character is supposed to be unattractive. Maybe not physically. Physically, she is clearly stunning. Even without foundation and sparkle eyes, no way getting around that, unless you want to ugly her up with some beastly pancake make-up, ala Monster. But it's a neat trick of good writing to make a character seem uglier (or prettier) than they really are, with just a few key brush strokes, details or omissions or lines of dialogue, and Cody does this masterfully. She gives Mavis ticks, an obsessive/compulsive trait of digging her hair out, leaving one little bald patch in the back; shows her messy apartment with single-serving dog food containers littered about the floor; establishes an immediate disconnect between her perception and reality, thus rendering Mavis both obnoxious and yet strangely likable. (At this point it should go without saying, but if you don't want to know what the movie is about because you are waiting to see it, you probably shouldn't be reading this.)
Essentially, Cody takes this
and somehow turns it into this
but without the benefit of a special effects' department.
Don't get me wrong, Theron's Mavis is still fucking hot when she wants to be. But in the film's climax at Buddy and Beth's baby-naming ceremony, when Mavis has a complete drunken meltdown, there is nothing sexy about Theron, who let's face it would be unbearably hot eating a cobb salad in sweatpants in a fucking Applebee's.
Character drives fiction. That is fiction writing 101. Sounds easy. Hard to pull off. The temptation of bad writers, and there are a lot of them working in Hollywood (see just about any Nick Cage movie), is to pull out the stock. Forget the hookers with the hearts of gold and washed-up athletes coming out of retirement for one last shot at glory, the grizzled, jaded veterans and the hotshot rookies who don't play by the rules, stock characters are everywhere, and a writer still has to navigate around the minefield with subtler creations such as suburban moms, repressed dads, and the dumpy, fat best friend with a crooked penis. It's hard to get around stock, in part because their very existence relies on us, the audience, to fill in the blanks. You see the high school football coach who cares a little bit too much about winning, and you're going to get Jon Voight in Varsity Blues. Even a guy like Tony Soprano can come across like an overweight, New Jersey, Italian mobster. Because that is the role. And in Young Adult you have the fat, dumpy best friend with a crooked penis (Matt Freehauf, played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt), but the writing is so crisp, so fresh, so original that nothing feels like a type. Every character in this movie, even the smaller roles like Matt's sister, Sandra, feel fleshed out and completely realized, with individual wants, needs, and agendas of their own. Nobody here exists merely as a foil or prop. Such writing acumen gives me a chubby.
This is a perfect example of what Diablo Cody does so well. The story is at once funny and sad, a relief and condemnation. And Oswalt nails the role of Matt, the invisible boy fawning for the pretty girl. He didn't exist to Mavis in high school, and only this odd, fateful trip brings him momentarily into the narrow window of her life, playing the same ultimately irrelevant role guys like Matt always do with women like Mavis. The whole time they are talking and getting drunk and Mavis is unveiling her shamelessly self-serving plan, Oswalt's Matt is the voice of reason; he is the better person. Yet, when Mavis comes to him, dejected, base, pitiful, in a moment of true humility, naked as the hot mess that she is, that line, "guys like me were born loving women like you," only serves to reinforce the power structure of high school, which extends far beyond graduation. Trust me, go back to your fucking 20th High School Reunion; the seating arrangements will look exactly like they did in the cafeteria 20 years ago.
So when the film ends, and Mavis has not changed, which in itself is a major violation of fiction writing (characters need to change!), it feels right, the perfect ending. There is no realization, no epiphany, no growth; that is not the character Cody has written. There are no easy answers here. Or perhaps there are. If you are 37, immature and selfish, with a distorted worldview, it is a fucklot easier to find a few convenient excuses to remain that way. Of course, fiction is not reality. It is not life. It is life like. But more than any of those precepts, a truly well-written effort will rise above the rules; will give you something truer than a well-constructed lie. This is not a graduate writing workshop. I don't need to see any fucking change. I want to believe whatever course of action Mavis decides to take when confronted with the unpleasant, ugly truth of her pathetic existence. And this character only has one choice: to dig in deeper and keep blaming outside elements for her unhappiness.
Young Adult is about as perfectly written a movie as I have ever seen. Not saying it was my favorite, and parts of it, while laugh-out-loud funny, are almost excruciating to watch, but the writing, an in particular the layered, nuanced characterization, is a goddamn study in excellence. The hype it is getting, both in indie and mainstream cinematic circles, feel a lot like the praised heaped on Dave Egger's Away We Go (don't worry, Annie; I'm not saying Egger isn't a good writer), a movie I found laughable in its strained attempts at poignancy, whose dialogue felt forced, whose idiosyncrasies felt contrived, and whose characters (ala serious, sensitive guy with a beard) betrayed an unpardonable sin: manufactured whimsy. Young Adult tackles the same themes of displacement and a search for identity as Away We Go, but its honesty and depth, which it never forsakes for a gimmicky laugh (e.g., AWG's baby stroller scene), makes that movie look like a Very Special Episode of Growing Pains.