Both Juno and Up In The Air were likeably spiky comedies, froth with a kick, their accessibly potent nature formerly attributable to Diablo Cody and latterly to the subject matter (downsizing, redundancies and intinerant, fractured living). Although any bite was largely gum, these felt relatively unflinching, up against the admittedly flaccid competition.
Young Adult continues the trend and you wonder about two things: one being whether Jason Reitman is ever going to make a film that isn’t funny/serious/funny, pleasing but gruff, intelligent but beseeching. Mordantly magnanimous. And also: will he ever make a bad one? It must be tempting to adhere to these successful self-imposed strictures and keep churning out exceedingly enjoyable and lightly provocative films one a year for decades. You’d hope he might take a few risks at some point, but if he doesn’t, no problem.
The one thing that those two earlier efforts didn’t have is Charlize Theron, and she’s so good here as to elevate Reitman’s film to a level it couldn’t hope to attain with absolutely anyone else in the role. Try and envisage anyone else doing this as effectively: it’s difficult. There’s simply no one as good as Theron, certainly not at embodying so many facets, ambivalences, subtle shifts in character, likeably contrary attributes and graceful ferocity. Here she’s a writer of ‘young adult fiction’, formulaic, brash, guilelessly clichéd books, that seem to fulfil her to the extent that she greets her morning alarm fully-clothed, face down and stupefied on her bed each day, verging on alcoholic, skimming across life, but ostensibly ‘living the dream’ in her city apartment.
Cue an emailed photo of the first child of her school ex, Patrick Wilson, now married and still stuck in the old haunt, fading away as her abrupt and convenient refashioning of reality would have it, and in need of one thing: her to save him from his drab existence.
So she ignores the imploring calls for copy from her editor and sets off for ‘home’, flinging an old mix-tape into the car stereo to kickstart the nostalgia fest. She leaves a studiedly neutral invitation to catch up with Wilson on his answer machine and he agrees to meet the following night, at which point she rolls into a local bar and starts knocking them back, a former school peer ‘victim of a hate crime’ in attendance, and an unlikely reunion is struck.
They’re a useful and obvious but enjoyable comic foil: the addled former Miss Popular and the earthbound marginal figure, both washed up and wasteful. They will fall into step throughout the film, he the only bod in town she can call on and she still a fantasy figure, now wily and wearied but still impossible to turn away: the shock of her presence, regardless of the circumstances, is keenly felt. ‘Guys like me,’ as he says at one point, ‘were born loving girls like you.’ A bit hammy but you get the idea. It’s a mutual ego-boost that becomes a reality check for both, and then an unlikely accord.
As Theron’s plot slowly, queasily accelerates, you get plenty of ‘misunderstanding’ laughs, and then the kind of looming Schadenfreude detonations of vicarious shame that bring Curb Your Enthusiasm to mind. We get the moments of misjudged propriety as Theron visits Wilson at home with wife and daughter; the over-zealous and oleaginously ill-advised attempts at re-kindling a decades-dead romance on a night out; the inebriated opportunisms; the final, devastating drunken disaster at the baby shower, where all is revealed and Theron’s brilliantly conceived performance hits its high point.
Where the film really, surprisingly succeeds, however, is where it departs expectation entirely. What might have eased into predictable and mocking mirth evolves instead into a pretty affecting tragedy, and recalibrates earlier moments of pained fun as something considerably more substantial.
Young Adult, then, does nothing new: but if we’re going to continue to have deeply cynical, double-edged comedies, as seems to be the hit-and-much-more-often-miss trend of late, then I’d much rather they span off from this enjoyably acid blueprint.