Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: "Young Adult"

"Young Adult" is the egg of a great idea that never really hatches. It's built on an outlandish premise, and after 93 minutes of talking and emoting and frittering around, all we're left with is that same nutty premise.

Here's the nugget: Mavis, the pretty, popular girl from high school returns to her tiny hometown 20 years after graduation in order to win back her teenage beau. Her life hasn't turned out to be the fabulous adventure she imagined when she escaped to the big city, and she wants to recapture her glory days.

One problem: the former boyfriend is happily married and just had a baby. Mavis knows this -- in fact, it's the news of the birth that sets off her unholy mission -- but sees it as merely a bump in the road. She's fully aware that lives may be destroyed in her quest to reignite lost love; she just doesn't care.

So this is a movie about a horrible person who suspects that she's a horrible person, and the audience gets to tag along on her journey to confirm what she already knew.

The acting in "Young Adult" is splendid, especially Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, who play two fractured souls. Theron is Mavis, who lives in Minneapolis and is the (uncredited) author of Waverly Prep, a teen-lit book series suffering diminishing returns. Oswalt plays Matt, the loser she barely remembers from school, but who ends up being her new best friend when she returns to Mercury, Minn.

Matt is an interesting guy: After struggling to recall Matt -- even though he had the locker next to hers -- Mavis finally remembers him during a chance meeting at a local bar. "You're hate crime guy!" she exclaims. Not exactly a catchy nickname, that.

Matt, who walks with the aid of a crutch, was savagely attacked by some homophobic jocks in high school, who shattered his legs, bashed in his head and maimed his manhood. It was national news as a hate crime, until it turned out Matt wasn't actually gay.

So now he's just a forgotten guy with a limp, who spends his days in an anonymous job and his nights distilling his own brand of bourbon and creating crazy mash-ups of action figures by transposing their parts.

Somehow, though, when Mavis walks back into town they form a deep bond of trust. She tells Matt about her plan to win back Buddy, he old boyfriend, and he tries to dissuade her, though not very hard, having developed a puppyish affection of his own.

Almost irrelevant in all this calculus is the actual ex-boyfriend, Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson, who often seems to get cast as the unattainable object of female longing. Buddy's wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) -- who looks suspiciously amazing for somebody who just popped out a baby -- is oblivious about Mavis' intentions, despite the fact she's not exactly playing it subtle, wearing va-voom outfits to casual get-togethers.

Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, two of Hollywood's brightest young lights, fail to recapture much of the hip charm of their last collaboration, "Juno." There are a few witty moments, and some black humor that's fairly delicious.

(I especially liked the scene where Mavis visits a local book store and starts signing copies of her novels, until a clerk asks her to stop because they’ll need to return unsold copies to the publisher.)

There is still Cody's penchant for very written-sounding dialogue. Even worse is her tendency to tell the audience what's going on rather than showing them.

For example, when pressed about exactly why she wants to get back with the old boyfriend she's barely interacted with since the 1990s, Mavis essentially bleeps out the movie's entire theme: "He knew me when I was at my best."

Reitman has a great touch with actors, but he's helming a story that never got out of the gestational period. This film takes several characters and puts them through a blender, but we get the distinct sense when all is said and done they will all go on with their lives much the same as before.

2.5 stars out of four

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