Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Young Adult: Beautiful Monster
As Mavis, the messed-up, sorta-black-hearted former prom queen determined to head back to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota to win her ex-boyfriend back from the clutches of his unassuming wife and newborn daughter, Charlize Theron gets to be both deeply ugly and supernaturally beautiful. She cakes her face with make-up and she looks amazing, but in close-ups we can almost reach out and stroke her cheeks; they seem like they’d be brittle to the touch. It’s a tough balancing act – both emotionally and physically – and Theron pulls it off remarkably well. In some way, it’s the kind of role she was born to play, far more so than her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, where she had to endure hours of prosthetic makeup to try and make herself mundanely ugly. The problem is that she’s in the wrong movie.
Everybody around Mavis/Theron seems basically decent and normal and understated, and the actors give realistic, down-to-earth performances. That could have made for a bracing contrast, and one suspects that’s what Diablo Cody’s script is going for; one of the film’s main themes is the yawning chasm between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. But director Jason Reitman doesn’t quite have the directorial chops to shift and mix tones to create something greater. He’s not a bad director, but he has The Mike Nichols Problem (all things considered, not the worst problem to have). Nichols has an almost godlike ability to direct performances as long as they are uniform and consistent, be they stylized and broad (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or stylized and submerged (The Graduate) or naturalistic (Silkwood). But when he has to mix different performance styles, he falls apart (Biloxi Blues, Closer, Primary Colors, etc.). Reitman did a sterling job with the mostly naturalistic Up in the Air, but he seems lost here. A central character this nuts kind of needs the movie to go a little nuts around her. Otherwise it’s like a boiling cauldron of soup placed into a freezer; it threatens to turn everything rotten.
The movie also has an occasionally irritating tendency to dodge the issues it’s addressing. Patton Oswalt gives a pretty sensitive performance as Mavis’s high school chum Matt Freehauf (actually, she basically just ignored him) but his touching and terrifying backstory feels out of place: He was beaten to within an inch of his life by a bunch of “jocks” (they’re always referred to as “jocks”) who thought he was gay. We never see the grown-up versions of these jocks (Mavis’s ex Buddy Slade, played to dim perfection by Patrick Wilson, was a jock, too, but he appears to have been one of the nicer ones). Not that we need to, but the movie’s insistent need to indulge in Matt’s injuries puts the lie to its own vision of Mercury as a basically decent place full of basically decent people. Again, theoretically, such contrasts and inconsistencies might have worked. But the film doesn’t really know what to do with them – Matt even gets a late-inning monologue about his predicament that feels like a cheap attempt at some third act tears, not a dark reminder that this pleasantly tolerant slice of smalltown suburbia has its violent, psychotic side as well.
All that is a shame, because Young Adult isn’t a bad movie. At times it’s even a good one, and there's a hair-raising final scene that almost sends it hurtling off into a new direction. Plus, it has a dynamo at its center. Mavis is funny and terrifying and sad, and her predicament has a lot to say about our own lives – about the way that we hang onto a vision of our idealized lives and selves long after such ideals have vanished, about the way that things don’t always work out the way we expect them to. That identification-repulsion dynamic works overtime in Young Adult, but the movie itself doesn’t quite know how to reconcile any of it. It’s a bunch of parts looking for a whole.