Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

10Mar12

Charlize Theron (Mavis Gary), Patton Oswalt (Matt Freehauf), Patrick Wilson (Buddy Slade), Elizabeth Reaser (Beth Slade). Screenplay by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rating: 15. Running time: 94 minutes.

Jason Reitman is back for the first time since Up In The Air with another sharp-hip comedy-drama, and it’s no surprise to discover that Young Adult is better than almost anything else on offer in this often overwrought, offensively bad genre. And the core themes of his career are continued here with yet another fusion of humour and light but serious social criticism, the latter for the first time feeling like the emphasis, the former instead now proving secondary.

The title comes from the genre of literature Theron’s character, Mavis Gary, writes for: teenagers that are neither kids nor mature grown-ups, instead sitting in that intermediate phase where love and lousing around dominate everything and you live like a child in a new, difficult developing world. But the joke is that Young Adult’ is the category Mavis herself fits into. She’s over thirty now, but she still lives like a student gulping diet coke for breakfast, persistently putting work deadlines off and instead killing time online or watching television. She proves incapable of getting over her ex, and yet she indulges in casual sex and excessive alcohol consumption most nights of the week.

The ex is happily married now and recently a father, but that doesn’t stop her from leaving the big city and returning to her hometown in a delusional attempt to win him back. And the film, ultimately, is a week in her life as her childishness is exposed, with all the dark humour and life lessons that accrue accordingly.

The film could have easily been made by Sofia Coppola, another fine young filmmaker who has flirted recently with the theme of bourgeois boredom and frustration in Somewhere, throwing due wit on First World problems and saying something substantial in the meantime. And Reitman shows himself to be equally clever insofar as he knows damn well by now how to tell a good story. And it’s made all the easier by the fact he’s working with dialogue this good, dished out once more by Diablo Cody who he worked with previously on Juno.

Theron is marvellously confusing, nowhere near as likeable as Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, who we loved to root for despite knowing deep down he was a shit. Her Mavis Gary, in comparison, ends up inducing both some real disgust and sympathy, even if her most revealing moments remain drenched in black comedy.

The only surprise is the lack of music given that all of Reitman’s previous films have been heavily driven by vibrant funky soundtracks. Young Adult feels quiet in comparison, and that conveniently reflects the tone it ends up striking more broadly. It’s the young director’s trickiest treat so far, but Reitman continues to respect us with intelligent but mainstream storytelling. More of this sort of thing from everyone, please. Hollywood would do well to accept him as a trend-setter.

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