Monday, January 09, 2012

Young Adult: The Least Funny Comedy of 2011

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who saw the trailers for the new film Young Adult (directed by Up In The Air and Thank You For Smoking auteur Jason Reitman, penned by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) and thought to myself: that looks really funny! I want to see it! I mean, I didn't expect The Hangover-funny or Caddyshack-funny or even Superbad-funny, but still, you know, "ha-ha" funny. I've seen the other films by Reitman and Cody, so I was fully aware that Young Adult wasn't going to make me guffaw. That's just not their style. What I love about them is that their's is a smart but dark humor, intentionally reflective in a way that capitalizes on the kind of recognition that Aristotle praised in tragedy and Hegel drew out of the hard heart of self-righteous self-consciousness. That's a difficult sort of "funny" to capture on film, but it's Reitman and Cody's bread-and-butter. There's just no denying that their films-- especially those, like Young Adult, that are marketed as "comedies"-- are funny, even if uncomfortably, ironically, sometimes pathetically, sometimes sardonically. So, on the basis of what I considered a semi-informed opinion, I went to see the film and expected it to meet my expectations.

You know, sometimes you're wrong, and sometimes you're WRONG. I have to say that I'm cataloging my expectations for Young Adult under the latter.

Just so you know, ALL the conventionally "funny" parts of Young Adult are right there in the trailer. Other than those scenes, this movie is about as funny as Apocalypse Now. (Oh, come on, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"? Admit it, you had a few bad-faith chuckles in Apocalypse Now. Never get out of the boat.) In fact, if the Vietnam War took place in the psychic space of a late-thirties professional woman instead of on the Indochina Peninsula, and if the warring factions were that woman's pathologically-arrested and self-sabotaging developmental tendencies instead of the Americans and the VietCong-- and also if there was a better soundtrack-- Young Adult pretty much would BE the same film as Apocalypse Now. But maybe I exaggerate...

No, actually, I don't. Young Adult is the LEAST funny comedy I've ever seen. And, weirdly, the fact that it's marketed as a comedy (that "I-don't-think-that-word-means-what-you-think-it-means" dissonance) is exactly what makes Young Adult brilliant. Because I think this really is a brilliant film, I'm throwing out my usual rule about avoiding spoilers in the following. Not that that rule matters much, since the plot isn't the point in this film and, at any rate, you can pretty much glean the whole plot from the trailer.

First, you should be prepared for Young Adult's psychic, emotional and aesthetic assault from the moment you chomp down on your first mouthful of buttery popcorn. Reitman's opening 15 minutes unfold at a snail's pace-- a sedated, clinically depressed, probably hungover snail, that is. It's almost painful to watch. We see the film's protagonist, Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron), schlogging through existential minutiae in what appears to be a pharmaceutical haze. Partly because it's boring, partly because it's pathetic, but mostly because it's a little-too-familiar, Reitman's decision to depict the quotidian details of Mavis' life sans sonic salve makes the quietness of those scenes all the more foreboding. Even before the opening credits, Mavis has embarked on an as-yet-unexplained road trip to WhoKnowsWhere and, already, we've been given ample reason to decide that we probably don't want to come along. Despite the fact that the movie's soundtrack, as a whole, constitutes a pretty impressive homage to 90's nostalgia, Young Adult nevertheless feels disturbingly quiet for most of its duration. In fact, there's only one really prominent song in the whole film, Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept," which Mavis plays over and over on a cassette tape in her roadtripping car and which has the unbelievably inappropriate-for-the-film chorus "I didn't want to hurt you oh yeah / I didn't want to hurt you oh yeah."

Fair warning, moviegoers: don't believe that chorus for a second. Mavis Gary (AND Reitman AND Cody) want to hurt you. And they're going to do it.

The credit for that hurt is due, first and foremost, to scriptwriter Diablo Cody (née Brook Busey). In other interviews, Cody has said of Young Adult's arrested development storyline:
I felt like there were a lot of movies out there about the man-child. It had become a kind of genre unto itself. Everybody thinks the man-child is so funny and cuddly and lovable, but I thought there’s something sinister and disturbing about a woman who’s in the same place... I believe in just having as many representations as possible of women onscreen … good, bad, shitty, whatever. There just needs to be volume.
There's certainly no volume-shortage of the "bad, shitty, whatever" woman here, though precious little of the "good" one. Unlike she did for Juno, Diablo Cody pens absolutely no redemption for the young adult Mavis. Audiences may be able to indulge their desire/need to pull for Mavis even in spite of Mavis' first gross demonstration of self-centered solipsism, maybe also after the second, more reluctantly after the third and fourth... but Cody just doesn't let up. She keeps those demonstrations coming with relentless emotional brutality, like a jock's proper junior high beat-down of the nerd du jour. Cody's Mavis is pathetic, pathological, embarrassing, cringe-worthy. (Even when she's being sympathetic, as she supposedly is in her so-awkward-it-hurts sex scene with her own high-school nerd du jour, the crippled Matt Freehauf, played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt.) It's not that this "bad, shitty, whatever" woman doesn't inspire sympathy (even, for some of us, empathy), it's just that she's what we might call-- to borrow Nietzsche's phrase-- "human, all too human." That is to say, Mavis is profoundly broken, like some badly played, dive-bar-cover-band version of a really great song, the one that physically hurts you to hear. Mavis is needy, she's lonely, she's morally and metaphysically insubstantial, she's painfully and painfully recognizably vulnerable. She fails as a matter of character. She has failed her family, her partners, her friends, her dreams, her potential and, as the story goes, herself... but she's utterly blind to all of these weaknesses. So, she doubles-down on her superficial, ephemeral strengths (good looks, professional semi-accomplishment, fading high school social cachet) whenever her weaknesses are exposed, and the consequence is always-- every time-- that her doubling-down is a bad bet.

Mavis is such a tragically sad and unlikable character that I can't help but think that Reitman and Cody made this movie for her. The whole film feels like an intervention. (And if you've ever watched the television series "Intervention," you know how hard it is to watch such things.) That's a credit to this otherwise painful story, in my estimation, and I want to be the first to thank Cody and Reitman for it, because there are a whole lot of Mavis's out there in the world. They've been mindlessly and recklessly crashing about on the pinball-bumpers of life for a long time without an artist to tell their stories honestly and sympathetically, even if their stories don't inspire much sympathy. So, kudos to Reitman and Cody for giving us a warts-and-all picture of "bad, shitty, whatever" women.

There are a lot of them/us.

Don't see Young Adults if you're looking for a laugh, or a grown-up version of Juno, or a less-depressing relay of Up In The Air. Reitman and Cody are in their sweet spot in this film, which is an uncomfortably un-sweet spot, as it should be. There's nothing comfortable or pretty or, to be honest, sympathetic about being broken like Mavis Gary is broken. And/yet/but, as Derrida was fond of saying, those women are still among us and they need our sympathies. Even when-- nay, especially when-- they're unsympathetic, when they're hard to watch, when they're hard to love or even like, when they're embarrassing. As much as I hate myself for it, I feel for Mavis in Young Adult because, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as a "young adult." You're young or you're an adult.

And never the twain shall meet.


Ryan D. said...

Very nice analysis, Leigh. Your review inspires in me the same kind of pull I sometimes get when I think I might not have studied "Funny Games" closely enough. A double-feature could well be in the making ...

Marlinee said...

I loved the movie too, and I agree with your conclusions about the main character. But, the really uncomfortable scenes were funny to me--the ones where she says the most self-absorbed, delusional things. It was funny like some clips of Michelle Bachman or Donald Trump can be funny. I think Max and I and about two other people were the only ones laughing though. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was Max. He has an addictive laugh.

Curry O. said...

I agree. I was reluctant to see it because it was portrayed as a stupid comedy. I fully expected her to be successful in her endeavor because Hollywood men often like to have their fantasies played out on screen (or have female screenwriters develop their fantasies on the page). Certainly I should have given Cody more credit, but I was pleasantly surprised when the movie wasn't just hot sex scenes with the long lost chick from high school.

I don't really understand her quotation, though: "Everybody thinks the man-child is so funny and cuddly and lovable, but I thought there’s something sinister and disturbing about a woman who’s in the same place..." Man-children are lovable but Woman-children are sinister?

melanie said...

Interesting, I'm glad you posted this. I didn't like it. I just thought it was too cynical. I agree that it felt like an intervention in places, but the intervention failed in a way that inspired pity (and its partner, contempt) more than sympathy. I felt a little dirty in the end for having peeked in on her pathetic life for 90 minutes. And the baby blessing scene felt too contrived.

zilliz said...

This movie completely destroys our expectations of a 180 degree change for a protagonist. Reitman makes it work by playing against that notion:
“I like characters that don’t change,” Reitman says, “because I don’t think people change. Or they very rarely do, or they do by a tiny percent. I think people have revelatory moments, and they learn things, but most often they don’t change off of those things — or they change for five days. The number of times you’ve gone on a diet for five days, or become a vegan for five days, or become more conscientious about something, or gone to temple, or whatever that is. We have moments where we think, ‘Oh, I should be doing that more, I should call my mother more,’ and you call your mother for five days.

“So that’s why Up in the Air ends the way does, and that’s why this movie ends the way it does. They end with people learning things, and very well not changing.”

Devin Greaney said...

Devin Greaney

I really enjoyed the movie but I was not sure how I felt by the ending. I feel I am probably one of the Mercury people. I try to stay positive and realize that hey, I will never do a TED talk, create anything monumental or be featured in Fast Company, I am a very happy person. I have no dreams of seeing Europe, Asia or Australia ( Seattle and Boston are about as far as I have been!) but I find my joy where I am. I thought that made me grounded. Maybe I am just simple, but I like it that way. And Mavis seems to have it all and is unhappy. I used to get frustrated by people like this, but I understand depression is not just failing to count your blessings but often a brain chemistry issue and telling these people to cheer up is like telling diabetics to produce their own insulin. It made me think!!