“Young Adult” : Diablo Cody Threatens To Grow Up

Posted: January 22, 2012 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A word of warning : if you’re not into over-analysis of Diablo Cody’s screenplays, then proceed no further. It’s just something we Minneapolis movie geeks do.

Okay, still here? Then let’s begin —

I’d been avoiding seeing Young Adult (as has, apparently, the rest of the world, given its dismal box-office performance) simply because I was so sure I’d hate it. Juno was offensive on every level, with its inherent message that teen pregnancy is a situation that can be overcome if you’re just hip enough (it’s also worth noting that right-wing commentators of the Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter variety praised it for being a “pro-life” film, and they were right), and Jennifer’s Body was unmitigated and thoroughly confused garbage from start to finish (that also continued the trend of Cody’s work promoting conservative social “values” by taking the tried-and-true (and inherently anti-sex and anti-women, not that we don’t usually love it around here in spite of ourselves) “slasher” formula of having the slutty girls get killed early while saving the prudish virgin to be the “final girl” who ultimately defeats the killer and upping it to the next level by having the sexually promiscuous title character get fucking possessed by the devil during intercourse and having the chaste “final girl” save the whole world from no less than Lucifer himself/herself), so what possible hope could there be for a flick that reunited Ms. Cody with Juno director Jason Reitman (who again in this case seems to be earning his reputation as a “hot” cinematic helmsman more for his ability to coax some admittedly very nice performances out of his cast rather than due to anything he might bring to the table stylistically speaking) to tell the story of a younger-end-of-middle-aged, semi-successful, teen-romance-series fiction writer (Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary character, the titular “young adult” in question) who goes back to her po-dunk hometown of Mercury, Minnesota (there’s no such place, just in case you were wondering) after her divorce in order to (she hopes) rekindle things with her old high school flame (Patrick Wilson), who’s now happily married and celebrating the birth of his first child? Ultimately, though, my curiosity got the better of me, and (of course) I ended up seeing it at a bargain matinee. I’m predictable like that.

Anyway, since I brought up right-wing social mores in Cody’s work (albeit in parenthesis, which I seem to be doing quite a lot today — including right now), let’s just acknowledge the white elephant in the living room and admit that this unfortunate trend continues in Young Adult, since the movie states in no uncertain terms that the lives of middle-aged, single, childless women are inherently empty and miserable (Mavis even has the nerve to be career-focused, as well, even if her book series is nearing cancellation). But in this case I’m giving Cody something of a pass because it’s blatantly obvious that these “character quirks” in Mavis are being employed not in order to advance any particular sociopolitical agenda (even though they do just that), but rather as some sort of defense mechanism/safety barrier/whatever so that audiences won’t draw too many parallels between the title character and the screenwriter herself, given that our gal Diablo has recently married and had a baby.

Apart from those superficial (of a sort, at any rate) differences, though, the fact is that Mavis is obviously a stand-in for Cody, and this results in Young Adult‘s greatest near-triumphs and, ultimately, its downfall. You see, it’s no secret that our intrepid “young adult” fiction writer is unhappy with her life and finds the “promised land” of big-city living in Minneapolis to be a lot less than it’s cracked up to be (substitute screenwriting for teen fiction and Hollywood for Minneapolis and you’ve got pure autobiography here — do I even need to point this out? Didn’t think so) and thinks that returning to her roots will somehow provide the answer to the gaping hole of emptiness that her life has become. When she gets there, though, she ends up discovering that where she came from is no great shakes, either, and that the only way forward in life is to — well, move forward, because the past just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sounds like a surprisingly mature outlook from somebody whose previous work was always more than a little bit too cool for school, doesn’t it? Throw in some terrific performances from Patton Oswalt as the picked-on-in-high-school kid who never left town and forms a friendship with Mavis due to their mutual loneliness and love of booze, Patrick Wilson as the sympathetic former-flame-and-new-dad who can’t quite hide the fact that he ultimately feels sorry for his old girlfriend, and Collette Wolfe as the small-town-girl-with-a-small-town-mind-but-still-dreams-kinda-big-anyway sister of Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf character, and you would seem to have the makings of a pretty decent little flick with a huge helping of good, old-fashioned existential doubt at its core. The French would be proud.

Things really hit a solid and truthful note when Mavis, realizing the folly of her quest to get back with her old beau, turns up at Matt’s house and the two share a love scene that leaves them both tremendously vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. It’s understated, yet louder than bombs (as The Smiths might say), and a couple of the best minutes of screen time in any movie in recent years. If the whole thing had ended there, or with Mavis silently driving off in the morning, I’d be praising Young Adult to high heaven.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, what we get is a hateful harangue against her hometown and the people in it delivered by Matt’s sister the next morning, where she insists that Mavis is still way cooler than anyone back here in Mercury and that everybody who lives in this one-horse shithole is fat, ugly, and deserves to die. Mavis takes it all in, quietly agrees, and then cruelly leaves the poor girl behind when she asks to come to Minneapolis with her (“You’re good here,” she states.) She drives off in her damaged car, finishes her book at a fast-food joynt, and it’s off into a future that, while admittedly uncertain, is still better than where she came from.

And that, my friends, is Cody finishing the film not on an honest, human, note of vulnerability, but with a huge middle finger to her critics. She’s honest enough to acknowledge that what she’s achieved maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that maybe her star has faded more than just a bit pretty quickly, but she’s still better than us, and certainly better than where she came from, and she’s still made it as far as she has and that’s a whole lot farther than anyone she grew up with.

Maybe she’s perfectly entitled to feel this bitter and resentful towards her past and the people that used to know her given some of the extremely over-the-top and unnecessarily personal attacks she’s received online and  in the print media from people who supposedly either knew her or at least (and more frequently) knew of her back in the day, but to see her come so frustratingly close to telling a really good story (the characters in this one even have their own distinct, individual personalities and don’t all speak with the same voice!) that acknowledges some of the things she’s been through and states the more-or-less universal truth that both where we’ve been and where we are have their problems, while the future remains a mystery, only to tell us that all that doubt was pointless and that at the end of the day she’s still way cooler and more successful than we’ll ever be is both insulting and a gutless cop-out.

Cody’s next project is apparently going to be her directorial debut, some story about a woman who’s raised in a religious home, loses her faith when she becomes a stripper or a hooker or something, and then finds it again through some series of trials and travails or whatever. So  apparently the promulgation of right-wing social mores under a flimsy veneer of “hipness” will continue.  To say I’m less than optimistic about how this sounds would be an understatement, and that’s a real shame because until the last few minutes of this film, I was ready to say that Diablo Cody had well and truly won me over and that I was ready to put my serious (and numerous) reservations about her work aside and just trust her to take us along with her on the ride to wherever this little journey of hers is headed. Now? Not so much.

At the end of the day, this film shows enough promise, conservative cultural subtext aside, for me to believe that Diablo Cody probably does have a really great story to tell buried inside of her somewhere. This could have been it — but her insistence on still being seen as the coolest girl in school (or in Hollywood, as the case may be) shows that this Young Adult still has a lot of growing up to do herself.

  1. Great review, you have a great writing style. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this film without really knowing anything about what it was about so this has opened my eyes to it a bit more.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      Thanks, I really appreciate the kind words — the film definitely has some good things going for it, but ultimately I left feeling pretty let down by its unrealized potential. By all means, don’t let me discourage you from seeing it, but don’t expect greatness, and needless to say, definitely don’t expect the comedy it’s being marketed as!

  2. This really is wonderfully well-written. As someone who is definitely NOT a fan of Diablo Cody, it’s always a pleasure to see someone pick apart her body of work so thoroughly.

    And the story for her directorial debut sounds about as unsubtle as Lady in the Water was for M. Night Shyamalan.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      I’m not as personally wrapped up in the anti-Cody brigade as a lot of people here in Minneapolis seem to have always been, and frankly I’ve found some of the backlash against her to be pretty outrageous, as well. That being said, she’s nothing special as a screenwriter and her work has always struck me as being very pompous and self-satisfied with its own supposed “cleverness.” In addition, the patterns of right-wing political themes in her work can’t be ignored at this point, and it’s getting pretty tiresome. Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. And now with her forthcoming “journey of/back to faith” pic, we’re headed for a fourth “reaffirmation” of conservative beliefs from a supposedly “hip/alt” screenwriter. I haven’t even touched on her “United States Of Tara” TV series because frankly the idea that severe mental illness is fun, cool, and hip is just so profoundly offensive that I never even bothered to watch it, nor did many others apparently, as it’s just been cancelled after a couple seasons marked by truly dismal ratings. So we’ll see what dropping off the mountaintop and falling back into the pack, so to speak, does for her career — maybe the pressure of no longer being the “next big thing” will result in some better and more honest work, but judging by “Young Adult” she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to quietly give up her accidentally-inherited title of Hollywood’s hottest writer, and still wants us all to know that she’s infintely more intelligent, clever, witty, and inisightful than the rest of us.

  3. Dave says:

    Hey man, excellent review! -Enjoyed reading it.

    I envy your access to cheap matinees, especially for films like this. We saw this one at Union Square when it was still first run and ~$15… Incredibly unsatisfying to lay out that kind of scratch for most of the pap that’s in theaters these days.

    At least, as a result of my broken leg/slowdown, I’ve discovered Film Forum here. It’s just two subway stops away. Not much cheaper, but satisfying…

    • trashfilmguru says:

      Access to cheap convenient matinees is drying up now though — the Uptown is closing for a few moths for remodeling and the big downtown megaplex/monstrosity I go to at Block E is closing for good in the fall.

      • Dave says:

        Wow, I cannot believe that the block E thing is closing already! And I suppose a remodel at Uptown probably means a retooling of the pricing structure as well.

        The days of the Boulevard 1 & 2 are long past…

      • trashfilmguru says:

        The landlord at Block E has been cancelling all the leases in there one by one in hopes of emptying out the mall and bringing in — get this — a gambling casino. Just what doenwtown needs. The movie theater was suing to keep their lease, but they just lost their suit. If the legislature doesn’t approve a casino — and I don’t see why they would — the whole mall will probably have to be razed. As for the Uptown, they’ve already got the highest prices in town, don’t see how they could go much higher.

  4. Aaron Babcock says:

    Thank you for confirming what I suspected about this movie. I’m both surprised (and ultimately disappointed) that the film briefly appeared to be a departure from Cody’s usual. I appreciated your critiques of her past work as well, as I found myself thinking similar things about them. Especially Juno when I saw it in theaters.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      My wife and I were about the only people around here at the time that we knew who were less than overwhelmed by “Juno.” Of course, here in Minneapolis the whole town was kind of caught up in Diablo Cody-mania and everyone was claiming to have known her at some point. The more time passes, though, the more people seem to be realizing they were hoodwinked, and like “Blair Witch” all those years ago, the anti-“Juno” backlash was both necessary, in terms of pointing out that the film actually sucked and was in fact pretty offensive on many levels, and unnecessarily excessive, in that Cody is not the devil, as many folks were very nearly coming close to saying. She’s just a crappy screenwriter with a right-wing political agenda who’s clever enough to cover up her uninspired and derivative plots and her conservative moralizing with faux-hipster dialogue that Hollywood was stupid enough to believe was “authentic” because she worked as a stripper for a short while and therefore she must, you know, have “street cred.” In truth all she did was distill the most superficial and easy-to-distill aspects of the whole 90s/early-2000s “zine culture” and package it up in a way that was unthreatening to middle America. Now that her admittedly profitable literary sleight-of-hand has been exposed, she’s got some work to do. With “Young Adult” she nearly tells a good, honest story that frankly is more relevant and nuanced than anything I would have thought she was capble of, but instead she pulled back from it and told us all “fuck you, I’m still way cooler than any of you midwestern losers” one more time. It may be worth catching on DVD, since you can stop it with about ten minutes to go and what you’d end with is a pretty decent little film.

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