I’ve often thought that reviewers should attend screenings in which the credits are withheld until after they have critiqued the film; perhaps there would be more honest responses if people didn’t know what big names were attached. Both the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal gave rave reviews to “Young Adult,” a confused film written by Diablo Cody and directed by Ivan Reitman, the winning duo of “Juno,” a very good previous movie which deserved all its accolades. In “Young Adult,” we start with a former prom queen, played by a far too beautiful Charlize Theron, who is clearly on her way down, fueling her descent with generous amounts of alcohol and self-deception. A childless, bitter divorcee at 37, she impulsively decides to return to Mercury, the small town where she once was the big fish, to recapture a gloried past, personified by her high school boyfriend, now married and a new father. Along the way, she meets the man who once occupied the school locker next to hers, now a crippled victim of a misguided hate crime who serves as her drinking buddy and her voice of clarity and conscience.
This set-up begins as a dark comedy and at first, gets some laughs at the expense of the prom queen’s chutzpah and self-delusion, both of which appear to be occupational hazards of a woman who got far too much attention for her unearned beauty and never needed to work on her character or social skills. Before long, the movie descends into a much less funny zone of someone in the process of uncontrollable disintegration spurred on by alcoholism and a runaway id without brakes. Joe Morgenstern (WSJ) claims “what makes the movie marvelous is …a literate script with dramatic energy and a delicate tone.” A clue to how tone-deaf he is to the sledgehammer climax is the fact that he doesn’t even get that the woman living with the crippled man is his sister, not his wife. A.O. Scott (NYTimes) admires the fact that the movie “…challenges the dreary conventional wisdom that movie protagonists must be likable.” I guess Mr. Scott plum forgot about such protagonists as Scarlett O’Hara or the Godfather or most characters played by Bette Davis - difficult heroes and heroines who held our fascinated interest precisely because they were beautiful, handsome, charismatic and nasty. Except for Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks, likable is a term reserved for the milquetoast supporting actors, not the stars.
What’s wrong with “Young Adult” is that instead of remaining willful, narcissistic and beleaguered, Charlize Theron morphs into a woman undergoing a veritable nervous breakdown, something that unfortunately is neither funny nor redeemable. We watch the climactic scene hoping that her parents will call an ambulance and get her the psychiatric help she desperately needs, but the writer and director choose to ignore that path and pretend that with some coffee and pipe dreams re-enforced by someone else’s adulation, she can pick up enough shards to somehow keep herself going. By this time, too much graphic detail has convinced us of this woman’s plunge over the edge and we are left wondering more about her parents’ lack of intervention than about this walking train wreck who’s now driving back to Minneapolis.
In both “Young Adult” and “The Artist” a small dog is used to show us that deep down, narcissists are really good people - their cores discernible mainly to animals who can hear the decibels that ordinary humans can’t. In “The Artist” this is proven true by the hero’s spectacular talent as he dances his way to a successful comeback. In “Young Adult,” we feel sorry for the dog who remains in the clutches of a very disturbed woman trapped in a seriously lopsided movie.
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