Thursday, July 27, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Young Adult" is Charlize Theron's Best Movie

Scene from Young Adult
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Atomic Blonde is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Young Adult is Charlize Theron's best movie.

There's plenty to love about Charlize Theron's career in recent years. After a long period of unmemorable roles, it seems like she has been hitting a resurgence as a great female bad-ass. She's someone who can play tough, but also add layers to the character. For most people, that is best summarized in the iconic Mad Max: Fury Road, where her character Furiosa became a feminist hero by driving oil rigs and fighting bad guys in marvelous style. Along with that, 2017 has seemed to call her name with the fun but flawed Fate of the Furious and this weekend's Atomic Blonde. Even if all of these films are ranging in overall quality, there's no denying that she is a hot topic right now, and someone who knows how to bust a move when necessary.

The only question now was what topic I would choose to explore in honor of Atomic Blonde (especially since I'm not touching The Emoji Movie). Could I look at action movies? I thought long and hard before settling on the actress herself, and the idea of her career. After winning an Oscar for Monster, she has kind of been hit and miss in terms of memorable roles. It was also a role that saw her perform a deglamorized role as Aileen Wuornos, which has remained an Oscar faux pas in the past few decades. With all this considered, what exactly do I have to say about Theron in 2017? In all honesty, she has done a lot of great work, even in hammy movies. However, I think that she has never been better than in the somewhat underrated Young Adult.

It becomes increasingly hard to explain the magic of a Jason Reitman film. Following 2007's Juno, it did seem like he was poised to become a 21st century Frank Capra. Up in the Air attempted to solidify that with a powerful look at the economy and isolation while providing one of George Clooney's best performances. However, the praise for these two seem to usurp the magic of Reitman's fourth film Young Adult, which didn't have terrible reviews but didn't get the ceremonious attention that Reitman became used to. It was a dark comedy with Theron playing a young adult author who returns home to find out that she hates everyone there. It's also a great dramatic performance from Patton Oswalt, who is usually good when he's allowed to be more than comic folly (see also: Big Fan). Still, it was a film whose trajectory wasn't as Capraesque as Juno or Up in the Air, but it was still a great movie.

Another thing that has been undermined in the years since is the brilliance of the Reitman partnership with writer Diablo Cody. Cody of course won an Oscar for her screenplay on Juno, and who was quickly criticized for writing unrealistic characters. However, I think that she is one of the best screenwriters out there, if just because she manages to challenge the perception of women in film. It could be said for Ellen Page in Juno, Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body, and Theron in Young Adult. In a sense, women have specific roles in film that aren't as unflattering or interesting as Theron's Mavis Gary. She wakes up in an almost infantile position of life, drinking two liter sodas like a bottle. There's a narcissism to her that makes everything she does both hilarious and tragic. Mavis is both too in tune with what young adults like and herself acting like one.

It helps that Theron has a sneer to her stare that makes everything contradict the homeliness of her surroundings. Everyone else is happy, in a sense, because she's gone. They hide resentment for her, believing that she was a bad influence. With a great supporting role from Patrick Wilson, the comedy comes from an uncomfortable place, especially as Mavis brings up painful wounds of the past. Her visit home should be a triumphant one, but ends up reflecting just how much of a pain she is to everyone, even a store clerk has to calm her down after Mavis realizes that her book isn't as prominent in the store as she'd want. There's a desperation to Mavis, and it's a delightful balance between empathy and annoyance. It's a dark comedy, and one that is never afraid to have Mavis unleash a snarky response or pull some devious action.

In a way, it's the perfect satire for what Reitman's career had been up to that point. He had explored stories with deeply routed sympathy towards characters ranging from pregnant teens to anonymous employees that were laid off via computer interface. His vision of the world has a tenderness to it that makes everything sort of saccharine. However, Young Adult has a nastiness that enters, making one have to wonder why she comes around at all. There's nothing there for Mavis. Cody's stylized language has toned down over the years, and she has found a way to hit toxic poignancy in each line that Mavis speaks. She deflates the optimism of the world she enters in a way that suggests that one of the worst things that a person can do in life is not grow up.

It becomes difficult to call this "underrated" because it has found an audience in the years since. It has been accepted as one of Reitman and Cody's best works. In fact, it's probably Reitman's last great movie as a director, given the lackluster appeal of Labor Day and Men Women & Children (the latter is especially appalling when placed alongside his other films). Still, one has to wonder why the film didn't get more awards love. True, comedies don't usually fare too well in the Oscar race (with few exceptions), but it does seem like Theron's new conflict is finding a role that is both brilliant and capable of being an awards contender. Many made the argument for Mad Max: Fury Road (I would too), and I would second Young Adult on that list. She is a complex and unlikable woman who manages to still be a compelling force on screen. In a time where she plays action heroes, it's hard to remember her strengths as a dramatic actor and even comedian. With the right script, she can pull it off. I think she does so brilliantly here.

And finally, I would make the argument that Young Adult has THE BEST movie poster of the decade. I won't hear otherwise. 

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