“Young Adult”: Diablo Cody’s ultra-awkward new comedy

Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are terrific, but the forced, weird "Young Adult" is painful in the wrong way

Topics: Movies, Diablo Cody, Young Adult,

"Young Adult": Diablo Cody's ultra-awkward new comedyCharlize Theron in "Young Adult"

Screenwriting is one of those things nobody really understands, and I have long suspected that those who actually do it don’t understand it much better than the ordinary moviegoer. It was two-time Oscar-winning writer William Goldman, after all, who once supplied the supreme nugget of Hollywood wisdom: “Nobody knows anything.”

Robert McKee’s lectures and seminars on story structure have made him rich, to cite the most obvious example — but McKee himself has never written a credited screenplay for a feature film, and by his own admission is handing down elemental Aristotelian wisdom about narrative that was commonplace in the early days of Hollywood. His claim to have instructed at least 36 Oscar winners and 160-odd Emmy winners leads to a tautological retort: Since virtually every aspiring screenwriter has taken his course or read his books, that’s not such an impressive ratio. Personally, I suspect that imbibing cocktails at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s poolside bar leads to winning an Oscar — I mean, the correlation is amazing! (Bonus essay question: Is McKee’s real pop-culture legacy his formulaic approach to screenplay, or his appearance as a character played by Brian Cox in “Adaptation,” itself the career apogee of the ultimate anti-McKee screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman?)

A good screenplay, it seems to me, is a mysterious, alchemical combination of ingredients both familiar and unfamiliar. There are almost no general rules about screenplays that apply across the board, no matter what McKee or anyone else tells you. But if we’re talking about American movies aimed at a more or less mainstream audience, they almost always involve the application of a highly idiosyncratic voice to a formulaic structure. That exact combination is what elevated Diablo Cody to celebrity status with her screenplay for “Juno” in 2007, along with the fact — let’s check reality here, people — that she was an attractive and funny ex-stripper female-type person in a field dominated by ugly, hairy guys.



I didn’t love “Juno,” overall, but it was definitely crisp, humorous, unusual writing. What has happened to Cody since then is exactly what happens to every innovative screenwriter in the entertainment biz. She became a brand name and something close to a star in her own right, someone who will get multiple chances to succeed or fail, whether she writes crap or “Great Expectations.” And she already stands out a whole lot less than she did at first, because any number of other writers have figured out what she’s doing and sought to imitate it, to greater or lesser effect.

While Cody was writing the Megan Fox megaflop “Jennifer’s Body” — not as bad as its reputation, perhaps, but that’s not much of an endorsement — and crafting the TV series “United States of Tara,” other writers have been cranking out Cody-like scripts loaded with self-aware, overly verbose characters and post-Tarantino cultural shtick. She didn’t write “Horrible Bosses” or “The Change-Up” or “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” or “Going the Distance” or countless other bromancey, rom-commy movies of the 2008-11 epoch, but she might as well have. The Diablo virus has infected pretty much all of Hollywood comedy, both in its XX and XY-chromosome varieties. I was about to say that Cody’s lone distinguishing characteristic at this point is the fact that she’s a woman writing mercilessly about female characters, but then I got a telegram from Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo over at the “Bridesmaids II” production office. (And I have to say it smelled kind of gross.)

That brings us to “Young Adult,” which stars Charlize Theron as a memorably mean and bitter character — as it happens, a frustrated, drunken and slutty writer whose fame is not nearly what she wishes it were — and reunites Cody with “Juno” director Jason Reitman, presumably in hopes of rekindling their 2007 magic. And here’s the thing: If you didn’t know, going in, that this was a Diablo Cody movie and hence was supposed to possess an extra frisson of wit or daring or edge or whatever, I don’t think it would ever strike you that way. Humor is notoriously subjective, of course, but I didn’t find “Young Adult” especially funny. It’s an intermittently engaging fable of American homecoming that’s both intentionally and unintentionally awkward, and flavored from bitter to sour all the way through.

Theron is terrific, exuding a powerful, black-hole sexual chemistry as the boozy, unprincipled and profoundly unhappy Mavis Gary, who has apparently graduated from being the belle of her rural Minnesota high school to ghostwriting a failing series of young-adult novels. She lives alone in a trashed Minneapolis high-rise apartment with her yappy little dog, drinking too much and hammering prescription medication and wearing stick-on false boobs and waking up next to guys she doesn’t know. It’s a fearless performance, but beyond sheer voyeurism Reitman and Cody never give us a reason to pay attention to Mavis, let alone give three-quarters of a crap about what becomes of her.

Mavis is way behind on a deadline and for muddled reasons becomes fixated on a long-ago boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is still back in Mercury, Minn., with a wife and a baby and a 21st-century version of the suburban lifestyle that seems half satirical and half idealized. As with a lot of “Young Adult,” I can appreciate what Cody and Reitman are trying to get at here, or at least what I think they’re trying to get at. Mavis may be flamin’ hot, especially by the modest standards of Mercury, but she’s also rootless and utterly nuts, not to mention completely incapable of noticing that Buddy and his low-key, vaguely hip wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), feel sorry for her, rather than in awe of her. But the story also feels schematic and unconvincing, as if assembled from fragmentary Diablo Cody ideas: What if the cutest girl from high school became a writer? And a delusional narcissist? What if her old boyfriend was completely insensible to her efforts to lure him back? (Has Cody discussed this scenario with any actual, you know, men?) And what if she hooked up with the most unlikely possible person from her past?

That would not be Buddy, who is attractive enough (if as dull as the Minnesota summer day is long) but rather Matt Freehauf, a portly, disabled loser whom Mavis claims not to remember, even though they had adjacent lockers. Patton Oswalt gives the movie’s most heartfelt and generous performance, by far, but Matt’s character is also pushed beyond the point of grotesquerie. He’s still suffering from crippling and entirely too intimate injuries he received during a vicious high school gay-bashing (and, no, he’s not even gay); he lives with his sister and spends his leisure hours mashing up action figures and repainting them. As he tells Mavis when she complains about someone calling her a zombie, “I’m a fat nerd. I know what a zombie is.” But that’s not even an especially funny joke, and the whole idea that Mavis would be drawn to Matt — because they’re both broken and desperate or whatever — lies at the outermost vector of screenplay plausibility.

There are plenty of sharp aperçus and poignant character moments in “Young Adult,” to be sure, but it’s hard to tell where the movie’s awkward comic knife edge slides away into clunkiness. I never found Mavis’ relationships with Buddy and Beth and the rest of Mercury’s inhabitants remotely convincing in human terms, and as “Young Adult” went on I had to struggle ever harder to resist interpreting it as a severely messed-up work of self-analysis or autobiography.

As a general rule, I’m delighted to encounter movies that resist the American tendency to deliver redemption or healing (or, still worse, instruction) in the final act; we all know damn well life doesn’t work that way. But after staging a big and pretty satisfying all-character explosion, Cody ends this story with a flat, irresolute non-twist that’s meant to be subversive but just feels mean and a little sick. It’s one thing to write a black-comic tale about an utterly obnoxious character, and quite another to make apologies for her and send her back to her despicable life, leaving us profoundly grateful that we never have to spend time with her again.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>