Some people never grow up.
You’ve heard the phrase often enough, and it’s among the primary themes in 2011’s dark comedy “Young Adult.” Only it isn’t a comedy about delayed adolescence in the sense of a farcical Adam Sandler flick; it’s far more somber, even depressing. Which is probably the reason most people didn’t see it. “Young Adult” is one of those pictures about which you read or hear good things, maybe even catch the trailer, and then never see because it either doesn’t show up in your neighborhood or, if it does, runs for about two days to empty houses. I’m sure the studio and filmmakers are hoping the movie will do better on DVD, Blu-ray, Pay-for-View, download, cable, and broadcast TV than it did in theaters.
Anyway, I digress. “Young Adult” has a great pedigree. Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) wrote it; Oscar-nominated director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) helmed it; and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron (“Monster”) stars in it. It wasn’t enough. People ignored it in swarms.
“Young Adult” has the look and feel of a typical indie production, even though it’s filled with big-time names and a big-time studio, Paramount, produced it. Maybe that’s why a number of film-critics associations and film festivals nominated it for awards, like the Palm Springs International Film Festival giving it highest honors for Best Ensemble Cast. If film critics hadn’t seen it, it might have gone unnoticed altogether.
But did the film deserve being overlooked by the general public or by the studio, which released it only to a few hundred theaters nationwide? Well, it does leave one with an unfulfilled, unsatisfied feeling, the movie a slice of life with, like real life, no real ending. Recognize in advance that this “comedy” is not going to be funny in any traditional sense.
You know how some movies are feel-good movies? “Young Adult” is a feel-bad movie. Not a feel-sad movie, a feel-bad movie.
Charlize Theron plays a thirty-seven-year-old loser, Mavis Gary, a beautiful woman from a small town in Minnesota, Mercury, where in high school she used to be a somebody. She was the ultraglamorous queen bee, the prom queen, the head cheerleader, the kind of girl every boy dreamed about but never hoped to attain; and the girl every other girl secretly envied and hated. Now, close to twenty years later, she’s living in the big city, Minneapolis, and feels like a has-been, going nowhere. She ghost writes a series of teenage pulp romances (“young-adult fiction”) that’s coming to an end; she’s divorced; she lives alone in a small, messy apartment with a small Pomeranian; and she appears to subsist on a diet of Cokes, ice cream, and KFC yet maintains a perfect figure. That’s what she calls “life.” And she loathes it.
Mavis was only happy in high school. Nowadays, she suffers bouts of low esteem from thinking she never really made it in the big city. She doesn’t even get her name on her books. She’s emotionally immature, psychologically stunted, self-centered, lonely, and confused. She writes about teens who have “textual activity,” which she feels she lacks. Her relationships with other people are short term. She continuously relives her life through her books’ teenage characters, wishing she could be like them again.
And nothing is going to change her.
Mavis’s solution? She gets a note from an old flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), a handsome, straight-arrow type who stayed in the old hometown, got happily married, and is now having a baby. Mavis decides to return to town, show everybody how glamorous she still is, woo Buddy away from his wife, and run off with him. But he’s grown up, and she hasn’t. She wants to regain her youth, start all over again, and this time do it right. Is she delusional? Mentally unhinged? Or just incredibly desperate?
Still, Mavis is no satiric character, no parodic character, no funny character, and certainly no sympathetic character. She is, in fact, pathetic, embarrassing herself at every turn. She is no cute, quirky, lovable character like Juno. Screenwriter Diablo Cody shows us no mercy with her character; we dislike Mavis from the beginning, and it never lets up. That’s probably the film’s first major miscalculation. Did Ms. Cody really think people would want to go to a movie purposely to get depressed by a creep like Mavis?
Several other miscalculations involve the supporting characters. For instance, there is the lumpy little man, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), with whom Mavis graduated. He had a locker next to Mavis’s all through high school, but she never gave him a glance. When she runs into him in a bar in Mercury, she doesn’t even recognize him until she sees his cane. Bullies beat him up in school, thinking he was gay and leaving him crippled for life. He’s still single, living with his sister, also single. Through the course of the story, Matt becomes the only person in town with whom Mavis feels she can confide. She seems to feel they have both led tragic lives. Huh? A woman who had everything and now feels sorry for herself and a guy who genuinely did experience a tragedy but uses it an excuse to hang out in his garage building models? There is neither humor nor sympathy in either of them.
Another miscalculation is Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe). The filmmakers intend her as a drab, unattractive plain-Jane who always wanted to be like Mavis and still does. The trouble is that the actress who plays Sandra is cute and personable, and we have to wonder what that’s all about. Is she secretly gay and afraid to admit it, even to herself, choosing instead to live a life of loneliness? Who knows. Like so much in this film, the story hardly touches on her character, content to bring her in and as quickly throw her away.
That’s really all there is to the show. The acting is, admittedly, quite good, but once past the thirty-minute mark, you’ve seen pretty much all there is to see from everyone. While “Young Adult” feels like a promising story idea, it has an undeveloped premise that never goes anywhere. And when it plays out and gets to nowhere, it ends, and you wonder, Is that all there is?
The filmmakers shot the 1.85:1 ratio movie digitally, so not even a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode can do much to improve its picture quality. Typical of digitally shot movies, it looks superclean, soft, vague, and often dull, with little depth or dimensionality. If you watch a lot of broadcast TV in high def, you’ll recognize the PQ, and maybe you’ll like it. Colors are mostly natural and lifelike, if slightly veiled, and even though medium shots lack much in the way of definition, close-ups appear well detailed.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction does as much as it can with a soundtrack that runs high to dialogue. It works fine for what it is, handling the all-important midrange frequencies clearly enough. Expect little else.
We get some interesting bonus items on the disc. The first is a filmmakers’ commentary with director Jason Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg, and first assistant director/associate producer Jason A. Blumenfeld. Next up is a featurette, “Misery Loves Company: The Making of Young Adult,” seventeen minutes of behind-the-scenes info. Then, there’s another featurette, “The Awful Truth: Deconstructing a Scene,” about six minutes with the writer; followed by a forty-six minute Q & A with film critic Janet Maslin and director Jason Reitman at the Jacob Burns Film Center; and six deleted scenes, totaling about seven minutes.
The extras wrap with seventeen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Like most other studios, Paramount continues to use a flimsy Eco-case to house the disc.
“Young Adult” is a movie about a person who’s unhappy because she’s never learned to be content. Fair enough, but, for an audience, why should we care? Is it a cautionary tale? Is it simply a slice of life that we’re to observe without reflection? Are the filmmakers demeaning big-city shallowness or small-town complacency? Did they mean to entertain us with this depressing tale? It’s hard to tell.