Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Young Adult (2011)
Writer/director Jason Reitman has had an amazing and unique career. His very first film, “Thank You for Smoking,” garnered multiple praises from critics and audiences alike. His next two films, “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” did the same, with the addition of being nominated for multiple Academy Awards including four for Reitman himself. These three films are excellent mixes of comedy and drama with stories that are very touching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Reitman’s latest project, “Young Adult.”
The story revolves around Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), an author of a young adult book series that is coming to an end. One day, she receives an announcement from an old flame of hers, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), that he and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), have had a baby. Mavis suddenly decides to pack up and head back to her old hometown of Mercury, where Buddy still lives, with the sole purpose of stealing him away from Beth.
While in town, Mavis runs into a few friends she knew from high school including Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who is now a bookkeeper at a local restaurant. While they catch up, Mavis reveals her plan, which isn’t much of a plan at all. She’s convinced that Buddy is not happy in his marriage and that he will more than likely come around to be with her. Matt tries to tell her that this is nonsense, as Buddy seems quite happy with his wife and new baby, but Mavis is quite set in her determination.
If that quick summary seemed to end rather abruptly, it’s because that’s pretty much the entire story, and indeed the biggest weakness of “Young Adult” ends up being its story. Watching the film felt like 90 minutes of waiting for the story to pick up and take off, but sadly this never happens. Instead, it stays at the same level for the entire runtime, not wanting to take any risks with the characters or do anything that might advance the story in any way.
The film is a pretty big disappointment because Reitman is known for working with very eccentric characters. You may recall the fast-talking, cigarette PR man Nick Naylor of “Thank You for Smoking,” the wise-cracking, pregnant teen Juno in “Juno,” or the smooth job terminator Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air.” These were all fascinating characters with fully-developed personalities that an audience could form an emotional attachment too.
Sadly, the character of Mavis Gary doesn’t fall into any of these categories. She’s a single-minded character whom the audience is asked to feel for despite her one objective being to break up a happy marriage just so she can try to rekindle an old relationship. As you can probably guess, her character doesn’t develop much beyond this single desire, so we never end up feeling much of anything for her.
Like Reitman’s previous films, “Young Adult” has a blend of drama and comedy, though this time around, there’s much less comedy to be had, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when the story’s not going anywhere, you begin to hope for more laughs as the film goes on. The film is being marketed as a comedy, which is merely another example of false advertising as the film is most definitely a drama, and indeed, the number one complaint from the audience at this screening was that they were expecting a comedy, but apparently the studio thought it would be easier to sell a comedy rather than a drama with a directionless story.
The best that “Young Adult” has to offer are the performances. Theron does an admirable job of portraying Mavis, despite there not being very much to the character. She gives it her all and really brings out the desperation and loneliness that her character is going through. The best performance of the lot comes from comedian Patton Oswalt as Matt, a character who has had some rough times in his past that have left him handicapped. He does a great job of attempting to be the voice of reason during Mavis’s crazy plot.
The screenplay was written by Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for writing “Juno.” Unfortunately, lighting has not struck for her film career since her 2007 breakout. She followed up her Oscar-winning script with writing the terrible “Jennifer’s Body,” and now this. Hopefully one of these days she’ll bring us something great again. One of the projects she’s currently working on is the remake of “The Evil Dead,” which she may be able to bring something interesting to, but if her previous horror work is any indication, it could turn out to be disastrous as well.
Hopefully Reitman will be able to return to greatness too with whatever his next project is going to be. His three great films showed that he was a director to keep an eye on, but even the very best have one or two films on their resumes that don’t show their talent in the best light. “Young Adult” is not a terrible film, just one that was not thought out very well. There are some good performances here, but too many problems to be able to recommend it. 2.5/4 stars.