Diablo Cody’s Arrested Development
Although 2008’s Juno, directed by Jason Reitman and written by then-unknown Diablo Cody, proved a hit with both critics and audiences, the duo’s latest collaboration hasn’t garnered nearly so much attention. Young Adult combines engaging storytelling with brilliant acting, even exceeding Reitman’s previous work on Up in the Air. So the less enthusiastic critical response is surprising, especially when considering the acting prowess of Charlize Theron, who has wowed in various incarnations over the last few months (see Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus as well as her Oscar winning turn in 2003’s Monster).
In Reitman’s latest Theron plays Mavis Gary, a thirty-something c-list celebrity who adds to Cody’s showcase of incredibly diverse, yet realistic characters who enact her witty commentary on modern life. Throughout Young Adult both Mavis’s narrative and outlook ring true. Her pursuit of Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school flame, is fleshed out with several well-captured modern behavioural tics –the endless re-playing of ‘their’ song in the opening credits and Mavis’s fake texting at Champion O’Malley’s mark her out as a lonely, nostalgic woman desperate for the human connections she experienced in the past.
This motivation causes her misguided return to her hometown of Mercury, making it perhaps the most crazed female hunting of a man since Tippi Hedren’s portrayal of Melanie Daniels in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Like Melanie, Mavis must pay for her eccentric behaviour. However, her punishment comes not in the form of a vicious bird attack, but as a Mean Girls style word-vomit meltdown. This forms the climax to the film’s bleak and blackly comic exploration of Mavis’s life.
Despite Mavis’s delusional beliefs it is clear to the audience that her endeavour to re-claim Buddy is hopeless. This is cleverly demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Mavis’s flirtatious comments in a phone call to Buddy, where only the audience can see that he is engaged in perhaps the least sexy task imaginable – cleaning his wife’s breast pumps. This scene also serves as visual presentation of the fact Mavis and Buddy are at dramatically opposed stages in their lives; whereas Mavis can only look back to an idealised past, Buddy’s gaze is rooted firmly on the future.
Throughout the film’s visual design is both an engaging and realistic representation of the modern world. Mavis’ look is reminiscent of Paris Hilton’s as seen in The Simple Life or between the pages of various trashy magazines. Mavis’ obsessive watching of reality TV shows may be another symptom of her desire to regain her past ‘glory’. The film’s use of a handheld camera also renders it stylistically similar to such TV shows, although in terms of emotional depth it is much more penetrating.
Although it’s easy to resent Mavis for her superficiality and frequent bitchy remarks, her story also has the potential to pull heartstrings. Much of the film’s emotional punch is centred in the exploration of Mavis’ relationship with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), another Mercury High grad. Despite running in drastically different circles in high school, Mavis and Matt now find themselves on something like common ground. The scenes they share provide some of the film’s funniest moments of snarky dialogue, before this antagonistic relationship gradually gives way to something a little more tender.
Despite Young Adult‘s relocation of the staples of clichéd teen drama in an older generation – Matt’s sister Sandra is pathetic in exactly the same way as a certain Mean Girls character – it can’t really be said that Cody is covering new ground. Young Adult’s careful balance of comedy and emotive drama is also found in the earlier Juno. More specifically, the girl working the front desk of the anonymous Mercury motel is a carbon-copy of Emily Perkins’ abortion clinic receptionist in Juno.
However, Cody’s next endeavour looks to be a different breed entirely, and sees her trade the spoof horror of 2009’s Jennifer’s Body for the real thing. Cody has collaborated with other writers on the screenplay for a re-make of ‘80s horror (The) Evil Dead, which is slated to appear next Spring. A teaser trailer has recently been released, but if you value your sleep I’d recommend steering clear of the red-band version.