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.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.