As I mentioned the other day, after a grim 2011 it looks like 2012 has the makings of a good year for film. Later this week, I’ll be posting Jonathan Romney’s review of Alexander Payne’s tremendous The Descendants. But meantime, I hope you’ll indulge me while I throw forward to one of February’s best releases, Young Adult – a terrific sort-of-comedy from the Juno team of director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in recounting Juno’s many charms, but it’s worth remembering that key to the film’s success was Ellen Page’s warm, sweet-tempered central performance. Intriguingly, the lead character here, Mavis Gary, shares none of Juno’s positive attributes. She’s hard, cynical and self-pitying; a “psychotic prom queen bitch” according to one description. Reitman is used to giving us similarly prickly leads – think of Aaron Eckhart’s tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking or George Clooney’s corporate hatchet man in Up In The Air. But those weren’t really mainstream movies, while Young Adult certainly appears to behave as if it is – superficially, at least.
You can see many tropes here familiar from the kind of assembly line robocomedies that clog up your multiplex. There’s a return from the big city to the small hometown, the old high school romance vibe, the quirky old friends and former classmates who’ve learned life lessons and moved forward positively in their endeavours. You can just see it – can’t you? – starring Jennifer Aniston, with maybe John Corbett as the high school ex she’s still got a crush on and Megan Mullally from Will & Grace as her wise-cracking best pal.
Fortunately, Young Adult is nothing like these things. Mavis is the successful ghost writer behind a series of children’s novels, who lives in Minneapolis; she returns to Mercury, Minnesota – “a hick lake town that smells of fish shit” – specifically to win back Buddy, her unsuspecting college sweetheart, now happily married with a newborn baby. Mavis has little understanding of what damage she might cause. She is vain, deluded, she lacks empathy. I suspect she’s also an alcoholic. If you want warm, bubbly sentiments about a person’s capacity to grow and change, let’s say you’re not going to find them here.
Charlize Theron is pretty fearless as Mavis. She doesn’t play it for comedy: Mavis is drifting quite close to the edge and it doesn’t feel like it would take much to tip her over it. I’m not entirely up to speed with Theron’s accomplishments: Monster, of course, and she’s been good in films like In The Valley Of Elah and The Road – and pertinently here, a recurring guest slot on Arrested Development. But this is by far the most out-there performance I’ve seen from here, in many ways uglier and more demanding than Monster’s Aileen Wuornos.
One final, albeit incidental, thing. There’s a notion that our college years – roughly, 17 – 21 – are peaks, our golden years, never quite to be repeated. There’s a great moment, over the opening credits, where Mavis gets into her old Mini and drives from Minneapolis back to Mercury. She pops an old cassette into the car’s antiquated stereo system and cranks up Teenage Fanclub’s “The Promise”, hitting repeat over and over. This, we learn, was her and Buddy’s song, back in the day when she was prom queen and they were the golden couple at high school. In a way, Mavis is life is like that tape – on a loop, stuck in a time and place, repeating the same patterns over and over.
Young Adult opens in the UK on February 10. You can see the trailer here.