Except for a couple great scenes near the end, Young Adult doesn’t quite work, which is excruciating to say about a film with Patton Oswalt in it. Written by Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman, and starring Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for daring to play ugly, it has all the right ingredients. Up in the Air gets better every time I watch it, there was always a solid movie in Juno once you dug through the kitschy language and rightful backlash, and it should go without saying that Patton Oswalt is the best chubby sidekick a protagonist could have. But Young Adult gets caught in an awkward middle ground, where it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to defy genre like Up in the Air or be a full-on comedic romp like Bad Santa. It’s too stereotypical to be poignant, and not enough laughs for escapism.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a hard-drinking party girl (transitioning uneasily towards a party lady) who writes young adult fiction under a pseudonym when she’s not too hungover or watching reality TV (you’d be surprised at how many friends I have with this very occupation — I assume Diablo Cody probably does too). One day, in the middle of Kardashians and Diet Coke binge, Mavis (OH THE QUIRKY NAMES) gets an email from an ex, (BUDDY SLADE, SMALL-TOWN LEGEND) inviting her to a baby shower. Jealous of his stable life and seeming happiness, she gets it in her head that she’s going to leave Minneapolis (“the mini apple!”) with her pomeranian and mini Cooper in tow, and head back to Mercury, Minnesota to rescue her ex from his life of boring domesticity.
Back in her hick town, she meets an old high school classmate, Matt (Patton) at the local bar. “Hey! Aren’t you Mavis Gary?” he asks. She doesn’t remember him, even though her locker was right next to his. For all four years! And that’s sort of the problem with Young Adult in a nutshell. It’s just a little too Mean Girls. It’s hard to want to delve into Mavis’s psychological journey if she’s just going to be the standard bitchy pretty chick from every high school movie. Oh, she doesn’t remember the guy whose locker was next to hers because he’s a nerd? Did she also forget about him asking her to the prom? What other crappy clichés can we throw at this?
When she finally does remember who Matt is, it’s because he’s “the hate crime guy,” (sardonic monikers being Cody’s bread and butter) a guy who made headlines back in high school when a group of jocks took him out to the woods and beat him with a crowbar because they thought he was gay. Of course! Because he’s a nerd, get it? Of course the big, mean jocks hate him! Probably the worst kind of cliché is the “very special episode” cliché. For as much as it shows up as a plot point, you’d think you could hardly walk down the street without tripping over roving bands of jocks in letterman jackets gay-bashing someone. As a plot point, it doesn’t feel like it comes from an honest place. It feels like a cheap, torn-from-the-headlines way to add false gravity to a situation. Unnecessary, and kind of icky.
Which sucks, because backstory aside, Patton Oswalt as a resigned, small-town loner who walks with a cane, resents a guy with a wheelchair’s relentless positivity, and distills artisan whiskey in his garage is a great character (God I wish the movie had been about just this). You can tell Young Adult wants to be a film like Up in the Air, where we’re mostly being asked to sympathize with Mavis’s melancholy humanity (rather than laugh at her ridiculousness, or at least it seems that way because she never gets ridiculous enough), but the sheen of bullshit is just a little too thick.
Characters dramatically call each other by name CONSTANTLY. It’s always “but Mavis!” this and “no Buddy!” that. Once I noticed it, I counted 18 separate instances of characters unnecessarily calling each other by name. In real life, you only do that when you’re shouting to someone in a crowd or talking into a walkie talkie. Someone else tells Mavis “You’re a real piece of work!” In another scene, she runs ahead of Patton and jumps in a cab, and yells something to him out the window as the cab screeches away. Did anyone stop to ask WHY THE CAB IS PEELING OUT? You haven’t even told the driver where you’re going yet.
There are a couple scenes near the end at the baby shower and aftermath that I won’t spoil for you, which strike just the tragicomic tone the movie is searching for. (Hint: One is a hilarious sex scene featuring Charlize Theron wearing those sticky, chicken cutlet-looking thingies over her boobs). But for the most part, it feels like it can’t quite decide what it wants to be. I wish it had just been about Patton and the dog.