Screenwriter Diablo Cody's 2009 black comedy/horror mash-up Jennifer's Body currently posts an anemic 43% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics called it mediocre, disgustingly smug, and a disappointing studio product--and those were the ones who liked it. I happen to think it's the sort of progressive horror film that deserves to be spoken of in the same company as Rosemary's Baby, and is, in its way, more original and important than her mega-hit Juno. So I've got to say, I picked up her 2011 collaboration with director Jason Reitman, Young Adult, with quite high expectations. So I really didn't expect to be more disturbed, scared, and ultimately disappointed after watching it than I was after viewing a movie about a cheerleader who was murdered in a demonic sacrifice, and then possessed by a flesh-eating succubus.
Initially, YA seems to be merely a demonstration of how difficult it is for a woman to wear a Seth Rogen suit. The protagonist of this film romanticizes adolescence by conflating it with freedom, overuses mind-altering substances, wears age-inappropriate t-shirts, and resists emotional maturation in career and personal relationships. In movies like Knocked Up, Old School, and Role Models, or even non-Apatovian fare like Grosse Pointe Blank and Beautiful Girls, such characters are ultimately comedic and in their way, heroic. But when it's a chick and not a dude hitting the sauce, or on an old high school flame, we usually run into the Taming of the Shrew comeuppance plot covered by My Best Friend's Wedding and Sweet Home Alabama. Rather than affably charming and lovable, these women are meant to be pitied by an audience who knows more than they do about their own lives, and reformed by and through a humiliating realization of their own instrospective shortcomings. I don't always have a problem with this plot--I mean, you can say the same thing happens in Austen's Emma--but I didn't expect it from Cody.
Charlize Theron's Mavis does undergo public mortification and an epiphanic coming to consciousness of the self-loathing and self-deceit that Cody writes into her character--Mavis demonstrates pathological hair-pulling disorder and an impulse to disguise her real body through fake boobs, fake hair, and compulsive manicuring, along with her self-diagnosed alcoholism and childish fantasy fulfillment through the YA novels she ghost writes. There's even a handy trauma to glibly "explain" her arrested development and misguided belief that her high school boyfriend still loves her, despite his obvious happiness with his marriage and new baby.
I was pretty bored by this narrative arc while watching, and it would be one thing if that were the end of it. But the film takes a, to me, unexpected and shocking turn in the last few scenes that left me equal parts skeptical, unsettled, and confused. Not to give anything too crucial away, but after Mavis seems to realize the toxicity of her own immaturity, she has a conversation that corroborates every lie she has been telling herself about her own importance and worth. A woman confesses her abiding admiration for and jealousy of the way Mavis, the popular girl in high school, escaped their small town and small lives. Mavis concludes the film if anything more smug and deluded than she began it. I honestly don't know if this is a ballsy inversion of the comeuppance plot, or a clumsy betrayal of the film's own values. Either way, its disjointed story, lazy dialogue, and uneven performances just left me feeling icky. Diablo Cody has shown in her previous two films a real facility for the way power and gender intersect--at least in high school. If anyone's seen The United States of Tara, I'd love to hear if she dodges some of Young Adult's missteps.