The opening scenes of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" introduce us to the banality of human wreckage in the form of binge drinking leftovers, mountains of clutter and waste, and the crumpled form of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) passed out beneath the anonymous arm of a one-night stand. From there the film embarks on a troubling exploration of delusion and personal emptiness, resulting in Reitman's finest work to date and one of the year's better pictures focused on the ennui of modern existence as experienced by the thirty-something set. Questions of expectation and the measures of success as an adult are held up for reassessment, with the suggestion that living in the past is preferable to facing the yawning unknown of living in the present. There is no redemption in "Young Adult," very little hope, and nothing even beginning to approach empathy or compassion. It's a sad, fucked up world full of dead dreams and unfulfilled promises, and for most of us, memory offers the only respite.
In Mavis Gary, Reitman and writer Diablo Cody introduce us to a character who is rapidly approaching the nadir of her life. A ghost writer of a failing series of young adult novels, Mavis spends her days on the couch assimilating youth culture via television and her nights drinking til she passes out. While working on what's to be the final book in her series, she receives an email from her high school boyfriend's wife, announcing the birth of their new little girl. In a blink of her delusional eye, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown of Mercury, MN, and rescue boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from the shackles of adult responsibility, convinced they're meant to be together and her quest is righteous.
Mavis' campaign to win Buddy back makes up the brunt of the film's narrative, and its appropriately transfixing and unbelievable. As she attempts to insinuate herself into Buddy's life, she enlists the help of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, most likely providing his own wardrobe), a nerdy outcast who still bears the considerable physical and mental scars of a vicious high-school beating; in Matt, Mavis finds a foil for her self-loathing and uses him as a mirror to remind herself of her supposed stature as one of "beautiful" people who've just hit a snag in life. Matt, for his part, enables Mavis even as he tries to get her to abandon her plan, treating her to home distilled whiskey and puppy-dog crush adoration that borders on pathetic. Neither can let go of their high school selves, and in the two of them we begin to see the crippling effect of memory and nostalgia: everyone's an outcast in their own way, but it just sucks way worse for some.
This is a troubling, disturbing film. Mavis's delusion is never exaggerated or apologized for: it simple is, and we have to accept it as a part of her makeup. We know she's troubled (she suffers from trichotillomania alongside her borderline alcoholism) and plagued by self-esteem problems, but her behavious is so selfish and ultimately deplorable that there's no room for pity. Mavis seems determined to destroy herself, and her obsessive crusade to break up Buddy's marriage only leads to an inevitable breaking point. Buddy himself is a bit of an engima; he still has something invested in Mavis, for all his professed love for his wife and daughter. When the two share a brief, drunken kiss on Buddy's front porch i couldn't help but feel he should bear some of the responsibility for Mavis' mental state, but Reitman and Cody let him off the hook. Buddy gets it all, while Mavis and Matt are left wanting for something even beginning to approach happiness.
And what exactly is that "all"? "Young Adult" never really makes it clear, and that's part of the reason for the film's efficacy. If a wife and family are the true measures of success in the adult world, then yes, Buddy has it all-a decent job and the security it provides, a cool wife (she plays in an all-mom band called Nipple Confusion), and a new kid to keep it all alive. We're led to believe that Mavis is fighting this ideal, and that she wants Buddy back to reject this series of expectations. Her parents mourn the dissolve of her first marriage without considering the why; it's frightening to think that the posturing of adulthood comes before the actual satisfaction of their child for some parents (when Mavis matter-of-factly confesses to them that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, their reply is blank stares and denial.) Mavis' mission then becomes an act of rebellion, another grab at the brass ring of youth. Only her tearful collapse on Buddy's front lawn reveals the truth. While a bit of her confessional is over the top (a better screenwriter would have approached it differently, or excised it completely) it does offer some kind of answer for Mavis, an answer that Matt couldn't get at when he tries to get Mavis to view her life in perspective to the world around her. Again, the issue of Mavis' selfishness quashes any hope for empathy; the only person i felt any real joy for in the film was Matt, when he finally gets to realize part of his own dream (as sad as it is) in the wake of Mavis' breakdown.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is Reitman and Cody's decision to allow Mavis to continue her delusion. The final chunk of "Young Adult" reinforces Mavis' view of herself and her world and gives the distinct impression that she'll live her life the exact same way she has, nothing learned. Self-inventory is an impossibility for a character this damaged. It's a bold choice to present someone so flawed and let them revel in their own emptiness; if nothing else Reitman and Cody should get the award for balls in American film for 2011. In that sense this film reflects reality far more effectively than did their previous effort "Juno"; whereas that world became bogged down under the weight of its own pretense and stylization, "Young Adult" seems almost neo-realistic in its portrayal of psychic damage scarring across an entire generation. Maybe it's troubling precisely because it's so correct: the world is full of Mavis Garys and Buddy Slades, and neither represents anything close to what i want.
Reitman and Cody have made an amazing film. It's unsettling but magnetic, over the top in its believability but 100% correct in its illustration of malaise on the cusp of depression. In detailing the virulent strain of sadness that haunts our adult lives, "Young Adult" demands that we consider and reevaluate our expectations, even if none of its characters do. Mavis Gary and Buddy Slade are warnings, archetypes extended to the point of caricature to make a point. There is no right way to be an adult, no matter what the world tells us. We just have to do the best we can, and not hurt other people. It's the only way to really grow up.