Young Adult, the latest effort from Juno collaborators Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman opens today in five cities. Platform releases are not unusual during awards season, but the strategy seems especially appropriate (or maybe ironic) in this case because the film makes a point of skewering middle America. It will be interesting to see how audiences react to the way writer Cody and director Reitman paint suburban life.
A soot-black comedy, Young Adult tells the story of a semi-successful writer — author, she insists — who seeks an escape from her empty city life by wrapping her last hopes for happiness around an old high school boyfriend. Never mind that the oblivious hunk happens to be happily married and the proud father of a new baby girl. Charlize Theron is wickedly brilliant as the desperate and despicable Mavis, who is mad enough to think she can still steal the heart of any man just by looking pretty. Calling her a trainwreck, though, is an insult to Amtrak, and Cody/Reitman are so unapologetic about their anti-hero that it makes a harrowing emotional cringefest like Rachel Getting Married seem like a hokey Disney movie. Mavis snickers at a date’s earnest idealism — before sleeping with him. She verbally impales one old classmate who has the brass to question her motives, shooting a vicious back-handed compliment that showcases the claws with which she once ruled the top of the high-school hen-house. And when she fixes an icy glare on a put-upon hotel clerk — brrrrrr — you can feel her wrath in the back row of the theater.
We first meet Mavis in Minneapolis, the “Mini Apple” where she’s wasting away before her daffy brainstorm to recapture her glory days. From the moment she gets in her Mini Cooper and heads home to Mercury, Minn., the audience is prompted to scoff at the simpletons still living in her hometown and their colorless lifestyle. The camera practically sneers at the bland chain restaurants — witness the Ken-Taco-Hut (a Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut combo) — and big-box stores that line the highways on Mavis’ route
to hell home. When she arrives in Mercury, she quickly arranges to meet her former beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). She’s overdressed for just about anything but a 1980′s Joe Eszterhas movie; he’s dressed like he came in from chopping wood. The Prom King — no clue if he was, but that was his character’s nickname in Little Children and it seems to fit here, too — now works with his dad, eats lunch with him every day; his wife plays drums in a lousy all-girl band; and the best pieces of their home decor were purchased from those big-box stores we’re supposed to loathe. Mavis’ old peers aren’t rednecks, though. They aren’t ignorant. They’re just… normal. Normal, satisfied people who are living the lives they have, not dwelling on the lives they lost.
We’re meeting these people from Mavis’ perspective — she stares at them all like they have boogers hanging from their noses — but even when we learn that these folks are kind and seemingly content, the filmmakers don’t seem willing to forgive them for their sin of being simple. After an ugly social confrontation at Buddy’s daughter’s naming ceremony forces the audience to consider the characters in a different light, Cody/Reitman double-down on the initial dismissiveness for smallville with a surreal kitchen-table conversation between Mavis and a devoted former admirer, the one character who still thinks she walks on water. Is their sad exchange just a commentary on how everyone wants what they can’t have? If so, they didn’t hesitate to punctuate that point with one final joke at the expense of the quote-unquote yokels.
It makes me wonder how this film will play away from the bright city lights. Though it’s clear that Mavis is miserable in her urban existence, the scorn that she oozes is palpable, and the filmmakers take some delight in heaping on extra helpings. Will suburban audiences be as oblivious about this sensibility as the wannabe girl who used to bake Mavis treats or as understanding as Buddy’s considerate wife? Or will they feel snookered into seeing a movie that seemingly deems their lives so unworthy?
Have you seen Young Adult yet? Do you think suburban and smalltown audiences will be offended or amused?