Published Dec 15, 2011Beneath the landslide of positive Juno reviews were buried murmurs that the script wasn't very well-written and much of the film would have fallen flat were it not for the dual triumph of Ellen Page's adorableness and Jason Reitman's instincts being so finely tuned to the twee/butterscotch aesthetic required to showcase her properly.
Young Adult, with that warmth drained, at best might be called "subversive," but only if the aim is to subvert basic human decency. Or maybe it should be called "a nightmare vision," if the nightmare in question is David Foster Wallace's: a media landscape webbed under so many layers of "world-weariness or hip ennui" that "anhedonia and internal emptiness" become the foremost currency of mainstream comedy.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a commercially successful ghost-writer of a teen fiction series. She's representative of today's aimless 30-somethings: still yearning for an idealized past, but living like an outright adolescent, hence the title. Her quest is to reunite with high school boyfriend Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson, even though his first appearance shows him preparing a bottle for his newborn. The film's funniest, if meanest, jokes are at the expense of Mavis's culturally-bereft hometown, as Mavis wears evening gowns to the town's sports bars and fast food franchises, and pretends to text because that's all she knows how to do.
Patton Oswalt turns in another impressive performance as a handicapped victim of gay bashing who happens to be straight, known to Mavis only as "the hate crime guy." He and Mavis drink very heavily in a way that doesn't come off comically. In real life, a desperate woman complaining bitterly between eight- to ten-ounce gulps of grain liquor signifies an ugliness that is heartily discouraged. Why it's supposed to be amusing here is perhaps the minor variation from convention that has credible critics like Richard Roeper naming it among the best films of the year.
Stripper turned screenwriter Diablo Cody has said: "Mavis is a projection of my worse self. I'm a woman in my 30s who writes about teenagers, who has been accused of being immature and emotionally stunted. And I'm guilty of some compulsive, vindictive behaviour. I saw myself in her, but I thought, 'What's the worst possible version of that?' It was really cathartic to write that character and to channel bad qualities into someone who had no filter."
But it's not just Mavis; indeed, the whole picture comes off as immature and emotionally stunted. So perhaps that's one hollow victory, but the thing about unlikable characters is that they tend to either not expect much sympathy (Bad Santa) or are buttressed by artistically ambitious filmmaking (Buffalo 66). Here, Diablo/Reitman aim for something vaguely indie, but can't help catering to sitcom sensibilities. There's no real ending either ― after countless nasty remarks, Theron narrates a few forgettable lines about changing her ways that are so trite that it's unclear whether they're intended ironically or not.
The screening I attended was keyed up to enjoy this film, but only managed one significant chuckle, and even that had all the indicators of a desperation laugh. Most left the theatre appearing vaguely disappointed, but not so disappointed that they won't check out the next Diablo/Reitman venture should there be one. Or, in the case of those who attended because of the dog on the poster, not so disappointed that they won't see the next movie with a dog on its poster. (Paramount)