Monday 13 August 2012

Review: Young Adult (2011)

Screenwriter Diablo Cody strikes again with a scathing, uncompromising character drama. Young Adult follows the thoroughly unlikeable narcissist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), as she goes through a painful midlife crisis.

Mavis lives alone in a messy apartment with a small dog she ignores. Her career, writing teen fiction, is hollow; she uses it to vicariously relive her high school queen bee glory days.

Yet she detests her small town roots. She's twisted that way, despising what she desires.

When she receives an invitation to the baby christening of her former beau's (Patrick Wilson) first born, she snaps. Recognizing at least on a subconscious level how empty her life is, she sets off back home to steal him away from his, presumably, dull wife (Elizabeth Reaser).

Yet the 'hicks' surprise, and turn out to be happy and well adjusted adults. Worse, her former flame proves to be a committed father and resistant to her charms.

Frustrated, she slinks to a bar where she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a crippled nerd who was beneath her notice in High School. Beaten by his fellow students on the mistaken belief that he was gay, he is barely able to walk and suffers from sexual dysfunction. Whoops.

As he is broken on the outside, she's damaged on the inside. Yet his tragedy was forced upon him, whereas she engineered her own. They make for a great pairing.

Those who believe a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle are not going to receive this film well, as it sserts that contentment only comes from a committed relationship. Here, career is a false idol.

Charlize Theron is fantastic as the despicable Mavis; watching her barrel towards self-destruction is gripping in a slow motion car accident kind of way. She inhabits the role, bringing an unlikeable, deeply flawed character to life. Theron is possibly one of the best actresses working today, and the most willing to take risks.

Some actors only pick roles to indulge their own narcissism, playing the impossibly talented, virtuous, noble, and flawless. Not Theron. By the end of the film, her character has been stripped naked, both figuratively and literally. She's reduced to a raw nerve, her pathetic life laid bare before the happy townsfolk. It's hard to watch. Her performance is so good that you can even accept her odd relationship with Matt, which stretches credulity at times. Theron deserved an Oscar nomination.

Unfortunately, Mavis' emotional awakening only serves to make her aware of the painful emptiness of her own existence. She would be better off oblivious.

As her buddy and confidant, Oswalt is excellent. He tries to dissuade Mavis from her warped goals and tells her what everyone in the audience wants to say. Yet the power of Mavis' cold beauty still wows him, even as he clearly sees her unpleasant interior.

Young Adult is a scalpel sharp look at false values, self-deception, and emotional dysfunction. It's too cold and the laughs are too few and far between to call it a black comedy. It's a bleak drama with an even bleaker ending twist, and if you can stand plumbing the depths, deserves a watch.

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