Thursday, January 05, 2012

Culture Shock 01.05.12: 'Young Adult' subverts the traditional rom-com

Mavis Gary is no serial killer, but she's undoubtedly Charlize Theron's most despicable character since she won an Oscar for "Monster."

Mavis is narcissistic, selfish and — ultimately — delusional. That's bad for her but great for us. Fortunately, Mavis is the kind of despicable that is fun to watch. Most of the time, anyway.

Directed by Jason Reitman from a script by his "Juno" collaborator Diablo Cody, "Young Adult" is a romantic comedy waiting to happen. All the pieces are there: a woman returning to her rural hometown from the Big City, an old high-school flame, a former classmate/confidant.

We've seen it a thousand times — usually with Reese Witherspoon in the starring role — and Mavis knows the fairy tale cliché only too well.

But "Young Adult" is not a rom-com. Instead, it's a slightly dark and refreshingly pointed reversal of the lazy, insulting rom-com formula.

After graduating high school, Mavis left her "hick" town for a bustling metropolis — in this case, Minneapolis, where she found modest success as a writer of young adult novels. But with her deadline to turn in the series' final volume looming, Mavis has a sort of premature mid-life crisis, set off by an email announcing the birth of her high-school boyfriend's new baby.

By all accounts, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is happily married to his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), but that fact and the couple's new bundle of joy are just minor complications for Mavis, who returns to her hometown with her laser sight on winning Buddy back.

All she has to do is look her best — not a problem for someone who looks like Charlize Theron — inflate her resumé and convince Buddy they are meant to be together. It's just like in the movies.

The only person fully aware of Mavis' insane scheme is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a classmate Mavis virtually ignored in school, although it's subtly implied Mavis might be indirectly (and unknowingly) responsible for the brutal hate crime that left him crippled in more ways than one.

Matt is a geek who shares a house with his dorky sister, makes custom action figures and — in an unorthodox twist — distills bourbon in his garage. He tolerates Mavis only because he's had a crush on her since high school.

As he says during a scene where both are indulging their neediness, guys like him always fall for girls like her.

For the rest of us, Mavis is a hard character to like, and yet Theron still manages to make her sympathetic during fleeting moments, conveying hints of fear behind tired, hungover eyes. There's a real person behind Mavis' self-created, cartoon-character exterior, which evokes at times Paris Hilton, complete with a little dog tucked away in a shoulder bag.

"Young Adult" subverts the typical romantic comedy's clichés by always doing the opposite, but it subverts other Hollywood clichés, too. It says: "Most people are pretty happy. Family life can be fulfilling. Life in small-town America isn't all bad." Maybe those things aren't for everyone, but they're valid choices. The quiet suburban desperation of "American Beauty" says more about screenwriters than it does about the suburbs.

Despite centering on a miserable protagonist, "Young Adult" is a strangely optimistic film. In Reitman and Cody's neighborhood, most people are doing OK. When Mavis drives her trendy Mini Cooper through her old stomping grounds, wrinkling her nose at the chain stores and the combination KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut — a Frankenstein restaurant that reeks of tackiness — she's not actually showing off her good taste. She's just being a snob.

Everyone's happy except Mavis and the people like Matt who are unlucky enough to fall for her.

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