There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The fifty-sixth entry into this unbroken backlog is Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's acidic collaboration, Young Adult...
For the most part, everybody’s hometown sucks. Or, at least, they think it sucks. Growing up, nobody envisions themselves getting married, spitting out a few kids, and driving a Subaru Outback until they keel over from a heart attack or succumb to pancreatic cancer at the youthful age of sixty-two. Settling into the doldrums of adulthood, hanging out with friends you met in high school at the local dive, and keeping a steady 9-to-5 at the established conglomerate (where your father still works and the two of you have pizza or subs everyday for lunch) doesn’t necessitate a sizable amount of drive. It simply requires a need for status quo normalcy; the comforting stasis of what an individual grew up with. Long after the dreams of becoming a pilot or fronting a band (or becoming a writer) have died, the warm embrace of family and friends is what most are left with, for better or worse. The biggest cities or the most backwood, hick towns are often inseparable aside from population - offering a respite from ambition that can be viewed as a prison to those who see themselves destined for “bigger, better things."
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) wants no part of her old stomping grounds in Mercury, Minnesota. She’s moved on to the “big time” (at least that’s what she keeps telling herself); ditching the dead end losers of Mercury behind so that she can pursue her dreams of being an “author". She’s succeeded - at least, on a financial level - as a ghost writer for a popular YA series (that’s industry jargon for “Young Adult”) titled Waverly Prep - a Sweet Valley High knock-off that allows Mavis to channel her glory days through its fictional protagonists. Meanwhile, the writer drinks herself to death and sleeps with just about anybody once she gets blackout. Yet as long as she’s able to buy designer outfits and flaunt her tiny dog Dolce in a pricey bag, life is A-OK.
Theron is at the top of her game as Mavis. While most will probably point to her turn as Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster ('04) as being the actress’ best performance (and Furiosa from Fury Road ('15) as her most iconic), Theron tosses away any semblance of vanity in Young Adult without applying pounds of makeup or prosthetics. Besides being a full-blown alcoholic, Mavis’ delusions of self-importance are near impossible to sit through without squirming. While she’s still drop dead gorgeous (even hungover, in a Hello Kitty! tee, chugging Diet Coke), Theron has no problem throwing herself into Mavis’ sleaziest, most disturbing tendancies - like telling a married man she remembers the song she first went down on him to. At times, Cody’s script feels somewhat self-deprecating - as if the creator were turning the mirror against herself. When viewed through that lens, Mavis suddenly becomes a painful, personal self-indictment by Cody, who paints herself as a snotty, “too good for the normal life” writer who's willing to bear her flaws for all to see. The confluence of script and performance is perfect, marking Young Adult as one of the most scathing pieces of loose autobiography ever committed to the big screen.
As good as Charlize is, Patton Oswalt might have her beat. Oswalt has proven himself to be quite the gifted actor before - playing the titular psycho in Robert Siegel’s Taxi Driver riff Big Fan ('09) - but the way he discharges a deep, longing sadness in Young Adult recalls the late Philip Seymour Hoffman at his very best. Like Mavis, his Matt Freehauf peaked in high school; only the pinnacle wasn’t a self-imposed choice. Mistaken for being gay by a group of jocks, Matt was taken into the woods, beaten, virtually castrated and left for dead. Once the media discovered that Matt wasn’t gay - thus rendering the act unworthy of the headline grabbing moniker “hate crime” - the boy was left to fend for himself; an outcast amongst his peers known only for the horrible acts perpetrated against him.
Defeated by a world that doesn’t give two shits about his broken body, Matt now works at a Buffalo Wild Wings knock-off, keeping the books while living with his nosy sister. In his garage, he distills his own bourbon (which he names after scenes from Star Wars) and in his room, he disassembles action figures before reassembling them into entirely new forms of his own invention. It’s probably the most on-the-nose metaphor Cody works into the script, but Oswalt sells the Suburban Humpty Dumpty with heartbreaking chutzpah, never once leaning on his tried and true alt-comedy persona as a crutch (apologies for the pun). It’s a performance of subtle bravura, as Oswalt makes the most brutal moments of truth feel fully fleshed and lived-in.
“Guys like me are born loving women like you.” The relationship that builds between Matt and Mavis is one of enabling and honesty. Matt feeds Mavis his homemade booze while trying to talk her off of the ledge of luring her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson - the king of Aughts emasculation), while Mavis pokes and prods the sad man until he bursts with stomach churning confessionals. There are many funny moments shared between the two, but what most viewers will carry away is the unbearably naked candor. Even though they ran in different social circles in high school, Mavis and Matt truly are kindred spirits; shattered souls who have no idea how to pick up the pieces, and retreat to their own creations to find solace.
Jason Reitman has never been great at maintaining a singular tone in his films, opting to often inject a Capra-esque saccharinity into stories of wounded loners. As good as Up In the Air ('09) is, the film is undone by a too sweet (and somewhat too predictable) third act in which the main character (George Clooney, doing his very best Cary Grant) learns a “valuable lesson” during a sibling’s wedding. The same goes for Thank You For Smoking ('06), where Aaron Eckhart’s soulless spinster suddenly has a change of heart due to his moppet son’s advice to “fight back”. While Reitman is an ace at developing characters, the stories he chooses often forsake what has been built before (satire) in favor of more heart-warming, crowd-pleasing finales. For all the flack Juno ('07) receives for Cody’s “cutesy” dialogue, it at least has the good sense to strike a consistent tone (somewhat dark coming-of-age) and stick with it all the way to the end.
With Young Adult, Reitman yet again shows he has a keen ear for music, but instead of simply using his aural astuteness to establish tone (as he does with Up In the Air and Juno), he also uses the soundtrack to represent Mavis’ mindset. Peppering in '90s alt-rock needle drops from Teenage Fanclub (whose track “The Concept” actually serves as a plot point), 4 Non Blondes, Veruca Salt, Dinosaur Jr. and Suicidal Tendencies, Reitman - along with music supervisor Linda Cohen - is able to show just how stuck in the past Mavis is. The music of her high school years (which is enjoyed via old mix tapes) still serves as the soundtrack for her feigned adulthood. Where Buddy’s wife (Elizabeth Reaser) uses the tracks from her youth as a temporary escape from responsibility, Mavis remains fixated on the events that each song represents (see aforementioned comments about blow-jobs). Though not explicitly stated, it would probably be a good guess that Mavis is a “90s rockist”, so stuck in the past that she’s unable to even allow herself to listen to the music of the present. It’s Reitman using all of a motion picture’s elements to completely define who Mavis Gary is.
It’s no coincidence that Young Adult - the second team-up between Reitman and Cody - is able to nail its acerbic air for the whole of its brisk, ninety-minute runtime. But where this is great from a critical perspective, many audience members have rejected the film’s black-hearted take on adults refusing to mature (just look at the abysmal one star Amazon reviews for some hilarious proof). Reitman refuses the “personal growth” or “sweet” ending he delivered in past pictures, and that doesn’t sit well with those expecting more of the same. Young Adult is a much more mature piece of filmmaking from the director, and it demands the same from its audience.
Some have described the climax of Young Adult as being non-existent; the lack of growth in Mavis as a human being somehow seen as a negative (instead of, you know, the point of the whole fucking movie). But this again speaks to audience expectations rather than the quality of the movie they’re watching. They yearn for Reitman to tell them it’s all going to be OK; that the protagonist will awaken from their evil ways and begin pursuing a more noble cause. But Young Adult is the strange coming-of-age tale in which the lesson learned is that stasis is just as easily achievable as growth, given the right enablers.
While Mavis has gone off and left the shitkickers in Mercury, Minnesota behind, those folks have gone on to become full-fledged adults, regardless of the “imprisonment” they’ve imposed upon themselves by staying in their tiny hometown. The “author” might be out in the big world, but her refusal to move beyond booze, boys and status obsession relegates her to a state of arrested development. Self-perception and self-delusion become inseparable for Mavis Gary, the easy answers held tight to the vest by Reitman and Cody as they send her off into oblivion to (more than likely) continue to learn nothing at all.
Young Adult is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount.