Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Young Adult

         Look Homeward, Angel of the Morning
                 Review by Ken Burke

Just because you were all that in high school doesn’t mean there’s any “that” there years later if you assume you can just regenerate your former small-town heat.

        Conventional wisdom says “You can’t go home again,” but one strategy to overcome that dictum is to never leave in the first place or at least scamper back quickly after a required stint in college or an away-from-your-parents job done for no particular reason except social expectations; conversely, there are those who yearn to scamper far away but whose circumstances or lack of courage never allow such a leap into hyperspace.  In one way or another, various parts of that last lengthy sentence get to all of what’s relevant about director Jason Reitman’s new collaboration with Diablo Cody in Young Adult, anchored by a marvelously self-deluded starring role from Charlize Theron.  Reitman and Cody teamed up previously for Juno (2007) for which Cody won her Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (and just about every other award she was nominated for that year), while Theron took her Oscar (and many other of her own awards) in 2003 as Best Actress for Monster.   As far as Oscars are concerned, Reitman’s the groom still waiting at the altar but he was recognized heartily for Up in the Air (2009) for which he could have shared a producer’s Best Picture Oscar in my opinion (sorry, Hurt Locker, although I‘m still glad that Kathryn Bigelow finally cracked the Best Director glass ceiling that year over Reitman and even James Cameron—for the spectacular Avatar).  So, with this much talent in command of the project you’d expect plenty of payoffs, which are well delivered throughout, from Mavis Gary’s (Theron) pathetic beginning to her self-righteous ending epiphany. 

            Now, let’s deconstruct that all-encompassing opening sentence above to see what’s happening with this film.  Mavis’ life personifies the advice about not being able to go home again (although her parents are still there in fictional Mercury, MN to welcome her back to her old, untouched bedroom—when she finally gets around to visiting them after first checking into a local motel).  Even in her later thirties she’s the kind of person who mistakenly thinks that nothing has changed in her old world so that she can just waltz (or whatever the hot dance of the ‘90s was; I’m too out of date to know, but unlike Mavis at least I realize it) back into her former life and everything will be the same as when she left.  She’s also too jaded by her quickly flaming-out success as a ghostwriter for young adult romances to realize how less-than-all-that she’s become or how unalluring her drunken attempts at seduction are to her former high school love, Buddy Slade (affable, befuddled Patrick Wilson).  A legend in her own mind, she’s the complete opposite of her unnoticed, barely remembered ex-classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who’s painfully aware of his own limitations.  In fact, if these characters were somehow in the same universe and email address book as sex addict Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) in Shame, Brandon would easily recognize the desperate desires of Matt and the shameless wreck of Mavis and send Matt a holiday e-card with altered “Holly, Jolly Christmas” lyrics that say “F*** her once for me,” because all of them would know exactly where their various motivations lie (I had planned to use that line in my Shame review but had no proper place for it, so I just stuck it in here—thereby clearing my short-term memory and once again overriding my Shame[ful] allotment of tacky puns). 

            When we first meet Mavis on a late autumn Minneapolis morning she’s the epitome of living too many years after a film that might have been called Minor Triumphs at Mercury High (apparently she was voted “Best Hair” as her crowning glory).  She’s passed out on her bed then revives herself with a swig from a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke, her apartment’s a mess, her printer’s low on ink, and her life seems to be on auto-destruct.  Later, we find her in her bed with a sleeping guy that she’s obviously bored with because she soon decides to pack and return to Mercury to put her life back in order without even bothering to wake him up.  Visually, we quickly surmise her downfall by her Hello Kitty sweats, which reminds those of us who are Seinfeld-obsessed of the challenge laid down by Jerry to George:  "You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world, 'I give up. I can't compete in normal society. I'm miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.'" This is from the episode called “The Pilot,” which, of course isn’t the pilot of the series but a postmodern self-referential plotline within the series; Mavis might be able to appreciate this because her YA stories seem to be nothing but recycled memories and fantasies of her own adolescence but then again she might not be able to sober up long enough to even comprehend the concept.  As she heads toward Mercury (a planet too hot to sustain human life but here a town too dull to sustain Mavis’ self-image) we see two other signifiers of her present state: we can barely see her through her dirty windshield just as she can barely see where or why she is headed, and there are constant closeups of the machinery of her car’s cassette player (!) which keeps repeating the same tunes from her mix tape, helping maintain the perpetual limbo of her stunted existence. 

            Mercury seems stunted as well, with so many of its residents just perpetuating the lives of their parents and its commerce perpetuating the chain stores of the more thriving metropolises—Chili’s, Staples, Macy’s, and the nutritional Nirvana of a combo KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut.  This is the anti-matter version of “can’t go home again,” the forgotten planet of “never left home to begin with” which is on a collision course with Mavis’ world in a manner akin to the cosmic catastrophe we witness in Melancholia and likely on a scale of similar significance for Mavis’ priorities.  In Mercury, Mavis’ past is still alive to welcome her home…somewhat…as she’s easily remembered (but only as the snotty slut of the school), even though the only one she cares to remember is ex-boyfriend Buddy, whom she thinks she can swoop away from his wife and child as if marriage were a drive-through dry cleaners where she can pick up an old drop-off order anytime she feels like it.  Probably her own failed marriage (see the second clip noted at the end of this review) gives her little respect for the institution, but neither Buddy nor his wife nor any of her other new-mother bandmates in the local rock group Nipple Confusion (writer Cody at her best) share Mavis’ attitudes.  About the only characters we meet who understand why Mavis left in the first place are justifiably bitter Matt and his just sadly bitter sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe).

          Matt tries to talk sense to Mavis, even as she refuses to listen.  In response to Matt’s reminder of Buddy’s happy family status all Maris can comprehend is that “I’ve got baggage too.”  Verifying Matt’s command of the situation we see Mavis calling Buddy almost as soon as she arrives in Mercury, laying on the attempted sweet seduction while on his end the camera cuts off his head showing us only his hands and baby bottles as he’s preparing breast milk for feeding time.  Meanwhile, Mavis doesn’t even seem to know Matt despite his locker being next to hers throughout their high school years and his momentary notoriety for having been savagely beaten by jocks who wrongly assumed he was gay (in typically accurate satire from Diablo Cody we learn that once the assault was no longer seen as a hate crime than the media attention disappeared, leaving Matt merely broken and forgotten).  He’s the saddest example of the Mercury residents we see who have decided to just stay put, but he’s got good reason to be and doesn’t have his vision clouded by absurd assumptions as does menacing Mavis, who’s so self-centered that she never even seems to get back to her motel to walk her little dog (see the first clip noted below) day or night.  All Mavis can respect in Matt is his ability with homemade whiskey and his constant availability to listen to her plans for Buddy, given that he’s still sadly enamored of her despite the known reality of her bare acknowledgement of his existence.  Ironically, Mavis berates him for living in the past, in terms of his unrequited passion for her and the anger over his unprovoked attack.  Such a charge against her would be as obvious as the voiceovers that we hear periodically when Mavis is narrating to herself the scenes of the last of her YA books, mirroring the events we’re witnessing in the film as she continues to structure and rationalize what’s happening for her own benefit as least as she wants to understand it.  The main thing that’s not happening, though, is Buddy’s general disinterest in her “princess rescue” scenario, even though his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), makes Good Samaritan-like gestures to Mavis, although with terrible results.

            As far as the opening sentence’s aspect of “those who yearn to scamper far away,” we turn to back to Matt’s sister, Sandra.  After Mavis finally gives Matt the respect (and the sex) that he well deserves, she leaves him asleep in bed, just like our initial introduction to another Mavis one-night stand (you have to wonder if she’s ever had breakfast with any of her conquests).  At this point Sandra gives her the seething “F*** Mercury!” pep talk (Wow! Two distinct uses of our most versatile swear word in one review; George Carlin would be pleased) which sets Mavis on the road again, this time with more purpose than she had after high school (if her car makes it very far after she wrecked it while attempting to park in her motel lot).  For some viewers this may all seem like the related TV story of Quinn and most of her Glee friends in another Midwestern lost destination where perpetuation of past parental choices seems the only option for new generations (New Directions, indeed; not for most of them, by their own admission). However, I trust Diablo Cody to be pulling from her own experiences here, and it’s certainly a situation that speaks actively to millions who wonder what might await beyond the limits of small town/small city confinement.  But invigorated by Sandra, Mavis leaves with only a loathing for the rooted folks of Mercury, finding direction for herself at the expense of respect for any of them (probably excluding Matt, although in this context her night with him could have been community service on her part before her final self-banishment).  Sandra and Mavis agree, “Everyone here is fat and dumb,” which just works as a rationalization again, rather than any real maturing on Mavis’s part.  Mavis may be the older of Cody’s most well-known movie protagonists, but I’ll still give the maturity prize to Juno. 

            Cody’s script might generate some award nominations, though, because it’s a marvelous blend of biting comedy and serious social confrontation.  Things get very uncomfortable when Mavis ruins Buddy and Beth’s naming ceremony for their baby, then detonates the bomb that she was pregnant years ago by Buddy but miscarried.  This shockingly somber tone halts the comic pace, with little attempt to regain it as the film wraps up.  Still, the script effectively calls attention to itself through sharp, penetrating dialogue which is executed well by the entire cast but especially Theron.  Generally speaking, Reitman’s direction of this film is effectively functional with a steady pace and easily conveyed visuals.  A couple of times he indulges in quick energy montages of Mavis primping herself up for meetings with Buddy with emphasis on her pedicure, facial, and hair management, although the second of these adds a bit of humor with shots of equal attention given to the fluffing and hair spraying of the fall she uses to enhance her own follicles (given that she has a couple of bald spots where she’s nervously maimed herself a bit).  Unlike the script, which is notable but not distracting, the direction is intentionally low-key, although the final front-on shot of Mavis’ battered car is a fine choice to end this sad but hopefully useful tale of thwarted obsession. 

It’s clear that Mavis has been through a lot of emotional collisions since her brief glory days as small pond queen of the hop so this car image could just as easily be a metaphor for her.  She’s definitely had the pit stop she needed back home to gather herself—and finally begin the pursuit of a life narrative that wasn’t initiated by someone else, as was the book series that she was given only minor acknowledgment for.  What she does with her reinvigorated third act is not for this story to follow, and she certainly doesn’t have enough fuel to share with desperate Sandra who wants to leave also but it’s not going to be with Mavis who makes the mutual (?) decision that Sandra fits better in Mercury (?).  Like Matt, his sister still is awestruck enough by Mavis to follow her lead and “wisdom,” but it remains to be seen if Mavis yet knows best for herself or anyone else.  

When I attended my 25th high school reunion (quite awhile back, the 50th is fast approaching) I was surprised at how many of my former classmates were still “back at the ranch,” seemingly satisfied to have gone 50-100 miles away for more schooling (for those that even did that) then returned to settle in for the duration.  Like Mavis—and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) in George Lucas’ 1973 American Graffiti, a different take on coming of age stories (or avoidance thereof)—I had to leave, only to return occasionally but with no desire to reclaim anything I left behind and a satisfaction from the reunion that I was on the right path in another place.  Whether Mavis will find such satisfaction in “Mini-Apple,” a nickname for the Twin City she’s quick to tell her hick former friends has no current cachet, is a tale for another film, but it was satisfying in this one to see what she had to confront to be able to get mentally as well as physically out of Mercury.  The day that she can take comfort in that decision because she’s learned she needs more than Mercury can offer rather than just rejecting everything about the place as beneath her own supposed God-given gifts is the day that she truly moves beyond Young Adult fiction.  

            If you’d like to explore this film further here are some suggested links:

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