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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Young Adult Is the Latest Jason Reitman Film That Promises to Be Real But Isn't

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 10:30 AM

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Jason Reitman's four feature films as director or writer-director have been loudly lauded by critics and audiences. As someone who takes movies seriously, I would like to register my consternation. Reitman's films are superficial, sloppily written, and politically muddled. Laden with references to pop music and current events, they so badly want to be hip that they end up its opposite. Their key characteristic and common failure, however, is a lack of realistic or consistent emotional content. Reitman's lead characters are, by design, divorced from reality, yet there is no sense that Reitman is committed to portraying the pain, or change, or other interior experience they may undergo. Instead, these films' focus is detrimentally weighted toward "clever" reference-saturated dialogue and light jokes.

Reitman's first film, Thank You for Smoking (2006), is probably his best. It's funny and smart and smart-assed and has something resembling an edge. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a corporate lobbyist representing big tobacco. He describes his work quite proudly. On multiple occasions in the voice-over narration, he tells us he talks for a living. Despite direct experience of the health risks associated with smoking, as well as a discomfiting awareness of his young son's adoring attitude, Naylor doesn't question the moral value of his talent or the qualities inherent in the work he does. At the end of the film, Naylor leaves big tobacco behind after ambivalently testifying before a Congressional committee against a proposed "skull-and-crossbones" warning label on cigarette packs. (This climactic scene features Naylor acting out the film's implicit if vague libertarian ethos -- the very soul of ambivalence -- when he defends the right of cigarette manufacturers to profit in an industry known to be harmful.)

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In a coda, Naylor goes on doing the same work on behalf another industry. He reiterates that he talks for a living. But this is inaccurate. Naylor's work consists of lying -- creatively, legalistically, and in exchange for considerable sums of money. The nature of lobbying is the root of the issues that are satirically addressed in Thank You for Smoking, but that root is left pristine and untouched. In the end, the film tells us that lobbying is just fine, as long as you, personally, are okay with doing it.

This week, Reitman's new film, Young Adult, is released. The two films he made in between (Juno and Up in the Air) were big successes, each of them claiming places in dozens of critics' Top 10 lists and winning a number of Oscar and other high-profile nominations (Diablo Cody won Best Original Screenplay for Juno). Both of them, as well as Young Adult, suffer from the same fundamentally anemic storytelling that made Thank You for Smoking, despite several moments of well-executed comedy, ultimately unconvincing. Each film dallies around the edges of certain contemporary issues without ever allowing its characters -- or the audience -- to directly face those issues in a challenging or honest way.

In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a professional ghost writer who returns to her hometown hoping to rekindle a high-school romance with former sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) -- now unmistakably a happily married man with a newborn child. Patton Oswalt is Matt, a high-school acquaintance who was crippled in a beating during those years. Mavis is unable to square her high-school experience (in which she was the class beauty and an untouchable snob) with her current reality (she is depressed, has few friends, and is incapable of maintaining a mature standard of responsibility). Her pursuit of Buddy is unhindered by Matt's warnings.

Mavis' ostensible comeuppance takes place late in the film, at a naming ceremony for Buddy's son, where she throws an incoherent tantrum that reveals the extent of her mental illness to everyone gathered there (including her own parents). The film ends shortly thereafter. We don't know that Mavis is aware she has a problem, let alone what she may plan to do about it. Unlike the end of a movie such as Woody Allen's Manhattan, when Allen's self-absorbed protagonist displays a small but moving (and redeeming) glimmer of self-knowledge, Young Adult leaves us cold. Because the film takes her point of view, and because she doesn't evince any signs of self-awareness, we don't know much about Mavis' interior condition or what may develop after the final frames. This has the strange effect of making Mavis seem more of a cipher at the film's end than she is during its first act.

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Much the same can be said of George Clooney's character in Up in the Air. His on-the-go lifestyle prevents him from developing close relationships. He claims to prefer the life of a confirmed bachelor enjoying an endless if empty succession of one-night stands. When he finally does fall for one of his own kind, she turns out to be married. Besides being both a predictable and contrived piece of plotting, this revelation is hardly handled as a moment of wakefulness. By the end of the movie, we are hard-pressed to guess at exactly how this has affected the Clooney character. Yes, he's faced an uneasy moment that should be self-revealing, but his reaction is not documented.

Reitman's films feature good performances from his casts, and this would suggest an ability to work well with actors. (This goes for Theron and Oswalt in Young Adult, as well.) Many of these characters, as I have suggested above, are sadly underwritten. Reitman is lucky to have secured so many fine performers. They elevate the material but deserve more.

Reitman's characters are forced to face their worst qualities -- but they are not forced to deal with them honestly. Take Thank You for Smoking: To let a lobbyist off with a claim that he "talks" for a living is to gloss over the true failings of the character who would utter those words in the first place, as well as the industry that the movie is satirizing. In Young Adult, a mentally ill woman experiences a breakdown -- and neither she nor anyone close to her appears to notice or do anything about it. In both cases, character flaws are used as platforms for jokes and do not entail credible consequences. Perhaps this points us to the larger significance underlying the success of Reitman's films -- that such unsophisticated and morally equivocal content is so easily mistaken for award-worthy storytelling.

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Casey Burchby

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