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.