Perhaps the most significant thing Diablo Cody has produced since she barreled onto the scene in 2007, simultaneously winning an Oscar and indie cred for her feature film writing debut Juno, seems to have been backlash. While many remained endeared to her because of that film's stylized quirk, many others quickly expressed revulsion, so turned off were they by that script's gimcrack rhythms, its blog-youth patois. Wasn't she, after all, nothing more than a slightly more modern version of Kevin Williamson, that prolific '90s teen bard who gave his Scream and Dawson's Creek characters the heightened language of hyper-literate video store clerks? Cody, like Williamson, lays the references on thick, instills her kids, like those in Juno and in her follow-up Jennifer's Body, with that same exhausting verbal nimbleness, the kind that, when you really think about it, makes no sense at all. Kids don't talk like that! They shouldn't talk like that. Cody's writing was all too pleased with its supposed idea of smarts, its overly confident assumption that it had found some witty truths about the way teens really are. What initially seemed to sing in Juno was quickly deemed clunky, gimmicky. It was amateur kids stuff embraced by adults who didn't want to admit they didn't quite care for it. No one wanted to point out that the emperor had no hamburger phone.
Cody fared no better when she turned her pen toward the adult world, as her Showtime series The United States of Tara gave us split personalities as cheap clichés -- the redneck spoof, the creaky Housewives pastiche, the monstrous teenager saying "shocking" sexual things. Cody didn't seem quite ready for actual grownups, but she was also too much of one to really give kids an authentic voice. She was stuck somewhere in those dreary and confusing middlelands. Which is how, I suspect, she came up with her new feature Young Adult, a sad and bleary look at arrested development, directed with panache by her Juno collaborator Jason Reitman. It's a tale of a woman, pushing forty, who is both coming and going, looking back to the ever-receding past while the gray tug of time drags her into the future.
Charlize Theron, the tall, blonde meanest angel in heaven, plays Mavis Gary, a former high school queen bee who is now living a deceptively slovenly life in Minneapolis. She ghost writes a Gossip Girl-meets-Sweet Valley High young adult book series (Cody was once supposed to adapt that book franchise into a movie) and lives in a be-vista'd highrise apartment. She's living the dream! Well, save for the fact that the book series is sputtering to an inglorious end and her apartment is cluttered with wine and vodka bottles, liters of Diet Coke which she chugs every morning like water, and the general messy fuzz of a life a little out of control. Mavis has become a drinker, she's become bored. She's still got some of her teen haughtiness, when a date tells her he spent time teaching in impoverished Cambodia she reacts like a kid who's just been told she has to go on a boring field trip, but the remaining flicker is dying. She's where she wanted to be, yet finding that place to be a lot emptier than she expected.
So when she gets a mass email from her old high school flame Buddy Slade (the names in this movie are sometimes a little too on-the-nose), announcing the birth of his first child, she impulsively decides to drive back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota (see?) to win him back. She's convinced he's dying of quiet small-town desperation, so here she is, the still-hot city girl roaring back into town to the rescue. That is the fairly low-concept setup for this rueful dark comedy, a not-so-young woman headed on a misguided journey to reclaim past glory.
When Mavis arrives in Mercury, pulling her cherry red but dusty Mini Cooper into the parking lot of a Hampton Inn (perfect), she isn't entirely sure how to go about her plan. So she simply gives Buddy (Patrick Wilson, in full doof mode) a call, telling him she's in town for "a real estate thing" and that she's busy but if he'd be up for a drink she'd be happy to make time. They make a plan for the next day. Mavis is giddy, and to pass the time until the fated reunion, she bellies up to a local bar and winds up knocking a few back with a forgotten classmate named Matt (Patton Oswalt), a guy whose chief high school identity, beyond being an invisible nerd, is that back in school he was badly beaten with a crowbar by a bunch of jocks who thought he was gay. The beating left him walking with a cane and, uh, dealing with a mangled penis. (That, along with the line "Oh, you're the hate crime kid!", is one of Cody's cheaper, cruder jokes in this movie, one whose core is thoughtful enough to make such cartoonishness unnecessary.) The two have a strange rapport and, drunk in the parking lot, Mavis confesses her secret plan to Matt, who is justifiably horrified. Buddy is happily married with a new baby, part of a sacrosanct unit, Matt insists. But Mavis doesn't care, she's still convinced he's miserable. I mean, she would be miserable, right? So why wouldn't he?
Of course when Mavis finally does meet up with Buddy, it's clear that he's content and settled. He's happy to see his old girlfriend again, curious to hear about her flashy new life in the big city (that Minneapolis, excuse me "the Mini Apple," is talked about in such terms will come off as a joke depending on your geography -- one New York audience chuckled snidely), convinced she must be fulfilled and flourishing. That everyone assumes this makes Mavis's creeping dissatisfaction all the more palpable, for which she compensates by acting more fabulous and care free, wearing even fancier (or her idea of fancy) clothes. The movie proceeds like this, with a series of awkward social interactions that all serve to make Mavis's tailspin more desperate. Theron is in every scene, and she imperiously aces each one.
We know that Theron is a good actress, that she can, despite her mind-boggling beauty, play women down in the dumps with an earnest effectiveness. What's interesting here is seeing her play that beauty as its own cruel joke, it's part of what fueled Mavis's undoing, stoked a shallowness in her early on that's been hard to shake. Of course Theron herself has a kind of leonine intelligence, so she uses that here to create a full, harsh portrait of a woman, a former girl, who so many of us have likely known. There's that recognizable breezy, yet nasty, dismissiveness, that bored passivity passing for cool, that eyebrow-arched confusion at the idea that some people might have different, or more humble, values and goals. Theron plays a woman who's been convinced she was winning only to turn around to find out that everyone else has gone off to play their own little games. She's suddenly, thuddingly alone. She's lost in a haze of alcohol -- "I think I'm an alcoholic" she blurts to her parents in one brown scene, which they quickly laugh off as a joke and is never mentioned again -- and has no tools to find her way out. Watching Theron figure this all out, or rather slowly admit it, is the fine joy of this movie. It's a disarmingly dead-on performance, one so convincing as to be almost scary. "Oh god," one thinks watching Theron/Mavis wordlessly belittle an innocent. "I remember her." And then, "Oh god," one might despair, watching her wake up sprawled hungover in bed or schlumping to a fast food restaurant. "That's me."
That said, I doubt Young Adult would be as fruitful as it is had a more traditionally comedic actress been cast. I imagine that had, say, Elizabeth Banks taken the role or, shudder, Katharine Heigl, the film would be a more depthless product. Banks and Heigl are both talented in their own rights, but without someone like Theron's steely-eyed seriousness, the lack of shading in Cody's script would probably be more plain. This is not the pile on Cody paragraph, though. There are times when the language is just right, cutting and introspective and wise in a way I didn't think Cody capable of. But I do wish she didn't rely so often on that quirky, referential specificity that so quickly makes a scene brittle. And she can be such a sucker for the easy joke. Wilson's character and his wife (the ever-inviting Elizabeth Reaser) are at times painted laughably broadly as perfectly charming humble family folk. The wife cutely plays in a mommy rock band at the local bar, Wilson is first seen carefully putting breast milk in containers like the number one perfect dad. I wish Cody had given them some darkness, some edge or unhappiness that would better balance the molecular jumble of nuance and detail that Theron brings to the table.
And Oswalt's character is given short shrift too. Here the comedian plays a variant of himself, the geek who is secretly a source of refined taste and smart, good company. It's not entirely hard to guess where the relationship between Matt and Mavis is heading, but when it gets there it feels stunted, frustratingly unexplored. Matt's final scene, in some ways, renders the entire character meaningless. There's no finish to this plot line and the character is left seeming like nothing more than the sounding board Cody created so Mavis could speak exposition aloud. Similarly, the heartbreaking Collette Wolfe, playing Matt's sadsack sister Sandra who still harbors an obsession with her former high school queen, is given one lovely scene with Theron toward the end of the film that almost approaches something like greater meaning. But then, just in the final seconds, Cody bursts the bubble. Scared, maybe, of giving up the wry, slightly cynical realism that seems required of so many alt (for lack of a better word) screenwriters these days, Cody doesn't allow herself any resolutions. Scenes, and ultimately the whole movie, end on a discordant note that feels more choppy and undercooked than it does clever or true.
Some of that, likely, must be blamed on the director Jason Reitman, but for the most part he continues to demonstrate what he started to with Up in the Air -- that he is a maturing filmmaker with blessedly decreasing interest in bright, idiosyncratic images and more in the grain and flow of a moving picture. Reitman is achieving full grownup-ness. And, to her credit, Cody is trying. But when someone as commanding and present and fully-aware as Charlize Theron strides into view, it's immediately clear who among them is the real adult.
Ramsay has chopped her story up into tiny, near-abstract pieces and sewn them back together into dual timelines that spend the film teasing at and bleeding into one another. We see Swinton, a high-end and respected travel writer with the improbable name of Eva Khatchadourian, and her affable husband (John C. Reilly) young and happy and in love. They laugh in the rain, they smoke cigarettes and kiss, they make a baby. Meanwhile, in what seems like the present, Eva lives in a small ramshackle suburban house, she looks dour and haunted, someone has thrown buckets of blood-red paint on her front porch and car. Eva shuffles around, cursing and stumbling, and sets about her day. Everyone stares quizzically, harshly even, at Eva as she applies for a job at a rundown strip mall travel agency. A woman approaches her in the parking lot and slaps her hard across the face, curses at her, wishes her an eternity in hell. Yikes. Things have really gone wrong for this lady. How we got from there, the boho paradise of early love, to here, this grim and punishing solitude, is the puzzle the film puts together.
While Eva lurches through the present day, in the past there is the birth of a baby boy. A baby boy who won't stop screaming and crying. Eva has taken time off from her job to care for the child and, faced with a daunting task she's not really sure she wanted to undertake in the first place, she is beginning to lose her grip. She stands, zombie-eyed, near a pounding jackhammer to drown out the sound of her son's crying (the son's name is Kevin, if you hadn't figured that out) and her face goes from warm mommy smile to anguished rictus as she bounces and bounces and bounces the shrieking child to no avail. For her husband, Kevin is all soft baby sleeping and cooing and gurgling. Why then is he so terrible to Eva? And why as a toddler does he refuse to speak, refuse to roll the ball back to mommy when they play a back-and-forth game? Kevin clearly has it out for Eva, this is some kind of demon child. The way Ramsay films little Kevin's quiet menace is absolute horror movie, with his stark black hair and gnarl-toothed jack-o'-lantern slack-jawed stare. Eva is lit with the pale glow of desperation, but wanders occasionally into bright swirls of madness. It's clear who our players are here, who is the hero and who is the infuriating villain.
The trick, though, is that we are seeing this story unfold through Eva's jaundiced eye. Was Kevin really this awful? Was Eva's husband really so goofy and saintly? The truth of the matter we'll never know, but the point is that this is how Eva saw it, or how she remembers it, and that is the story we're being told. Eventually, little Kevin becomes teen Kevin, which is where things get really bad. In the present we see Eva driving to visit her son in prison. Aha, that's why she won't leave this town where everyone so clearly hates her. She needs to be close to her son. (See, she's a travel writer who's stuck.) Teen Kevin is played by Ezra Miller, an up-and-coming young actor with bee-stung lips and deep, dark animal eyes. He's beautiful, but cruelly so. Miller has so far been cast in mostly these kinds of roles, the jaded and biting wise-beyond-his-years teenager, which he played with irksome acidity in movies like City Island and Another Happy Day (and he once played a character on Californication who was, fittingly, named Damien). But here he at least gets the benefit of being able to take the same stock Holden Caulfield routine to a deeper, more disturbing level.
Kevin is mean. Kevin is maybe a sociopath. He treats his younger sister, a bright and cheery little thing, like a slave or a prop. While almost mockingly genial to his father, he is cold and sardonic to his mother -- there are moments where he seems to respect her bluntness, but mostly he is hostile. He also, hint hint, has an avid interest in archery, and is often shown in the backyard practicing with a smooth wooden professional bow, his eyes likely fixed on something other than the straw-stuffed target before him. Eva regards him with sadness and confusion and, most alarmingly, mounting fear. A mean little boy can splatter paint on the walls and throw food on the floor, but a mean young man can do a lot worse.
And, it's no spoiler to say, a lot worse he does. And while the film's ostensible climax is appropriately grim, the odd straightforwardness of it manages to flatten the movie. Ramsay's fascinatingly intricate visual style and Swinton's transfixing, alert performance give this film its awards-season heft, but when you put those to the side, when you strip away the art-house veneer, what's left is a fairly standard story of how kids can go wrong but how mothers also still love them, of how that love is both a blessing and a peril. A lot of the film's discoveries are almost Lifetime-level obvious and un-profound, but Ramsay has given us visual flair as distraction and put up the defensive wall of an unreliable narrator -- no, this isn't pat and simple, it's just that she experienced it that way, she felt it that way. While the film is a stirring spectacle, it's also strangely remote and uninspiring. It slathers on a thick coat of tragedy and then tells us to feel sad and scared by it. Oh, OK. That was easy. What now?
Which isn't to say there aren't terrific scenes in the film. One sequence in particular stands out: Kevin, at seven years old perhaps, is sick with a stomach bug and Eva, being mommy, takes care of him. With his resolve perhaps weakened by illness, Kevin drops the cruel act and warms to his mother, he apologizes to her for throwing up, he rests his head on her chest when she reads him a bedtime story, and, best of all, he's dismissive of dad for once. Eva is thrilled, surprised, precariously hopeful. But then the next morning the boy is feeling better and the air has become prickly and chilly again. Swinton lets her face fall at this moment, the hopeful expectancy quickly sinking into one of sad and angry resignation, of confusion, of deep frozen-over heartache. In one little scene, in one change of the landscape of her face, Swinton tells a whole, staggering story. That's your movie, without all the other lugubrious stuff, right there.