Thursday, January 19, 2012

Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: 5 Things I Loved About Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult'

This afternoon as I was purchasing my ticket to see Young Adult (which opened today in Australia), I found myself thinking about the strange beast that the film's star Charlize Theron calls her career. Never solidly A-list and not exactly B-list, the actress has spent the last decade or so with one leg up and the other right below. Though she looks great straddling both sides of mid-celebrity, her filmography is clunky indeed.

Yes, she's famous, but she never quite became a marquee star, someone who can send bodies flocking to the cinema. (Quick! Name five of her movies.) And she's an Academy Award winner (for 2003's Monster), with one follow-up nomination (for 2005's North Country) and possibly another on the way for Young Adult (despite her nicely detailed work, though, I just don't see it happening, not with the movie's light touch and skimpy box office), but she's not exactly what you'd call Oscar bait.

Her Young Adult director Jason Reitman, who is becoming one of my favorites, has a similar problem. He collected several Oscar nominations, including two Best Director nods, for his last two films -- Juno and Up in the Air -- yet he's not in the pantheon of young directors that critics and moviegoers fawn over and call visionary, a circle that includes David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Maybe it's his deceptively simple film-making style. He relies on dialogue (this time, as with Juno, Diablo Cody's), mood and characterization rather than fancy technique and special effects. And his work is less sobering than that of Alexander Payne, who also makes human-interest movies that are more interested in humans and human behavior than plot. Nothing about Young Adult screams, "Important Film -- This way!"

But his movies say so much, and Young Adult is no different. I love the statement it makes about past, present and future and how the way we perceive the lives of others is often so much different from the reality of those lives. Watching it reminded me of my 10-year high-school reunion and how people assume that if you've moved to the big city and have a seemingly glamorous career, all is well in your world. It ain't necessarily so. And when Theron's Mavis Gary wondered about the people in small-town Minnesota who make being happy seem so easy (and she did so without judgement or envy, just bemused awe), I nodded in agreement. It's a puzzle that keeps me up at night.

I also love that despite her awkward career, Reitman cast Theron in the role of "young adult" fiction writer Mavis. A lesser, more commercially minded director probably would have gone with Cameron Diaz, who surely would have turned Mavis all sexy-cutesy and totally glossed over her lost wounded soul. Mavis is one tragically messed-up woman, but thanks to Theron, she's still one of my favorite screen characters of the last year.

Why am I so enamoured? Here are five good reasons.

1. Mavis is me, an insecure writer at a personal and professional crossroads. I can so relate. But don't worry. I'm not about to pack up and head to Kissimmee, Florida, on a whim, determined to reclaim the one that got away (he doesn't even exist), especially if it means breaking up his happy home.

2. She can say things like "Sometimes to heal, a few people have to get hurt," and I still root for her. Mavis is easily the most appealing rom-com anti-heroine since Julia Roberts plotted to steal Cameron Diaz's fiance in My Best Friend's Wedding. And like the prize in that film (one Dermot Mulroney), Patrick Wilson is easy on the eyes, and his Buddy character seems like great husband/father material. But if Mavis can't do better than him, at least she can do more interesting.

3. She's a messy drunk who's even messier with a hangover. A few days ago, a hungover friend of mine was complaining because she never gets hangovers. I imagined her rising and shining -- literally! -- after a night of heavy drinking, smelling and looking like roses. Don't you just hate people like that?! I enjoyed each scene of Mavis waking up fully dressed and face down on her bed. To make matters worse -- but really, better --  she'd reach over for the liter of Coke in bed beside her and take several big gulps. Once, she even burped afterwards. This is how we (i.e., normal folks) do it.

4. She cleans up well. Yeah, we love a sloppy, realistic screen drunk, but who do we love more? Someone who can dust herself off, hit the shower and after some intense primping, look even better than she did the night before, before she started drinking.

5. She doesn't need a man. I knew where Mavis and Matt (Patton Oswalt) were heading from the moment he limped into the movie. (Actually, he was sitting down when we first saw him, but if you've seen the film, you get my drift.) I'm glad that in the end, though, Mavis figured out that there's no shame in driving into your next chapter with no one riding shotgun, without the benefit of a man -- or a game plan. That's my girl!
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