Cody, Reitman Can’t Leave the Young Adult (2011) Phase

K.C. Skeldon, Co-Editor

In 2008, Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her first screenplay, the highly acclaimed Juno. In Juno, Ellen Page’s spunky pregnant protagonist tells the adoptive parents of her future child that she’d give them the baby there and then if she could, but that “it looks probably like a sea monkey,” and they should “let it get a little cuter.”

Young Adult is a sea monkey of a movie. For Cody’s sake, pretend that 2009’s Jennifer’s Body (a high school horror romp that seems to have been made for the sole purpose of showing off Megan Fox’s legs) never received the green light. Cody did some TV, creating the Showtime series The United States of Tara, which sees some critical success. With Young Adult came Cody’s return to the real world of film-writing.

And it’s a rocky journey back. Point-blank, Young Adult is not a great movie. It has about a tenth of Juno’s charm, and completely lacks the gentle, natural flow of the previous film. That’s what Cody seems to be going for, though it’s not what her audience wants.

The premise of the film is a basic hero-comes-home story. Charlize Theron (like Cody, suffering from a post-Academy Award funk after winning for Monster in 2004) stars as Minneapolis-dwelling Mavis Gary, the film’s overgrown Holden Caulfield of a protagonist. After going through a divorce, Mavis, who ghostwrites a Sweet Valley High-like series, plans to return to her small Minnesota town in order to win back her high school crush, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). However, this machination is triggered by an e-mail announcing the birth of Buddy’s daughter. Any sympathy created by Mavis’s straight-from-the-bottle Diet Coke chugging should disappear more quickly than her husband most likely did.

So, Mavis digs out a high school mixtape made by Buddy, throws her Pomeranian (the name of the dog actor is not listed in the credits, but s/he gives the best performance of the entire film’s ensemble) in her PT Cruiser, and leaves the “Mini-Apple” for home. During her drive (and the movie’s over-long opening credits, which is an eyesore compared to those of Juno), Mavis constantly rewinds the tape to Teenage Fanclub’s song “The Concept,” which becomes the film’s theme. This rewinding is cute at first, but it’s an annoyingly transparent metaphor for the fact that Mavis is going back to her high school life (even though she never actually left it, as evidenced by her career). Any audience members who don’t get it at first certainly will as the credits seem to repeat for all of eternity, enough time to ram the metaphor down the throats of anyone in a five-mile radius of the showing.

And once she enters her hometown, well, it’s best to cover your eyes. After passing the town’s new Kentaco Hut (the term for a Kentucky Fried Chicken-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut conglomerate; if this phrase hadn’t been used before, then Cody’s screenplay has produced something worthwhile), Mavis checks into a Hampton Inn. Remember the abortion clinic receptionist in Juno, the one who offered up boysenberry condoms? She might as well be the hotel employee who checks Mavis in, a sign that Cody is relying on her collection of stock characters (a Rainn Wilson-esque bookstore worker later enforces this).

Whilst attempting to stalk Buddy, Mavis meets up with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, a perfect casting choice even if he’s not that big of a name), a nerd whose locker was next to hers throughout high school, but of course popular, self-absorbed Mavis never looked at him once. It’s not until Mavis sees his cane that she remembers who he is: Hate Crime Guy. In a dark and daring decision of Cody’s, Matt was badly beaten by jocks who suspected he was gay (he isn’t, and sympathetic looks given to Matt for his sexuality become a recurring joke). Mavis and Matt become unlikely cohorts, even though their dialogue never seems quite natural enough. Soon enough, Mavis reunites with Buddy, meeting his wife (Elizabeth Reaser, whose Beth is the wife Juno’s Mark Loring wanted, and that’s a good thing: Her band Nipple Confusion, made up of new moms, is one of the film’s highlights). Predictably, Mavis screws things with Buddy up enough to realize that she no longer belongs in her hometown, and eventually departs.

Some aspects of the film showed promise. The movie’s events are punctuated by Mavis’s voice reading her work on the latest (and final) book of her series. Mavis gives her own protagonist, Kendall, the traits she thinks (but really only wishes) she has, and the contrast between perfect Kendall and train wreck Mavis is fairly amusing. Mavis’s mental illness is another thing that cries out for development. In fits of trichotillomania, she pulls out her hair. Mavis and several other characters do acknowledge her depression, though it’s anyone’s guess as to whether she does anything to treat it after the credits roll.

For their latest project, Cody and director Jason Reitman (the mastermind behind Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, as well as Cody’s Juno partner-in-crime) have assembled an unusual hodgepodge of acting talent. It’s not Theron’s fault that Mavis is completely unlikable; she’s just following Cody’s script. Patton Oswalt, though completely unbelievable as a romantic interest for Theron, provides the greatest acting (aside from the dog) in the film. Cody’s best writing moments are Oswalt’s emotional tirades as Matt. Collette Wolfe (Cougar Town) has a few scenes as Matt’s sister, Sandy, who brings out the best in Mavis through her own pathetic character. Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Watchmen) does what he can, but one can’t help but feel sorry for such a talented actor stuck in such a bland role.

Perhaps writing Young Adult was a therapeutic experience for Cody. Maybe next time she’ll produce something with a little more maturity.