Director Jason Reitman made a very smart decision when approaching his new film Young Adult. His past two successes Juno and Up in the Air were stylized dramedies one with colorful dialogue and production design flourishes the other with precision camera work his director's hand evident at every turn. In his latest he pulls way back letting his lead character—a vile destructive former high school prom queen named Mavis (Charlize Theron)—do the talking. And talk she does—every word a stinging insult disillusioned wish holier-than-thou gripe or embarrassing truth. Reitman unleashes an unfiltered Theron and the results are gut-wrenching hilarious and powerful.
While working on her latest Sweet Valley High-esque book Mavis receives a mass e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) announcing that he and his wife are expecting their first child. This sets a fire under Mavis' ass and after chugging a 2-Liter of Diet Coke and throwing on a Hello Kitty tee she hits the road to take back the man that's rightfully hers. Mavis shacks up in a drab hotel located in the heart of her small Minnesota hometown and immediately proceeds to the bar to indulge in her favorite pastime: pounding back whiskey. There she runs in to one of her forgettable high school classmates Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who she only recalls after being reminded of a horrendous gay bashing that left both his legs crippled ("And I'm not even gay."). The two form an unlikely friendship—Matt being enamored by Mavis' pathetic quest Mavis needing an ear to talk off.
Young Adult's simple premise allows writer Diablo Cody (Juno The United States of Tara) to move Mavis from depressing suburban local to depressing suburban local with ease creating a playground of homogenized perfection for Theron's foul behavior. Whether she open-mouth chewing on fried chicken at the local KFC/Taco Bell covering up last night's hangover with a fresh facial or seducing Buddy at the Applebee's-esque restaurant Mavis never falters always looking down at her surroundings finding excuses for why she's not the source of her own problems.
Theron's performance is fearless one of the few crass female performances shaded with human complexity and empathy. Young Adult is a very funny film that works because of its star's ability to teeter the edge of comical and truly unlikable. Oswalt and Wilson amplify the main performance embodying their own grounded characters to properly riff with the vulgar Mavis. Matt is a very Patton-y character to begin with but between is jokey back-and-forths with Mavis is an inherent sadness one Oswalt surfaces with a contrasting subtly. Unlike Mavis Matt has the ability to rise above is own plight and change. His new friend is tragically a lost cause. At times the film's story feels too narrow never allowing us to really explore Mavis' other relationships but it's hard to naysay for wanting more.
Few movies attempt to mine comedy out of the bleakness of everyday life; even fewer do so while twisting storytelling conventions. You watch Young Adult with hopes for Mavis but Reitman and Cody aren't ready to indulge you. In Theron they've found one of the few actresses in town who can simultaneously look like a conventionally gorgeous blonde bombshell and complete make-up-caked crap a woman with the balls to take a character who relishes in schadenfreude. They don't squander that talent. From the first to the umpteenth Teenage Fanclub sound cue Mavis is delusional caught up in her own fantasy and willing to execute it at any cost. It's a truly cringe-worthy mission but it works because sadly we all know someone like that.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.