It’s funny how so many sad films are labelled comedies. There’s a real gap in the movie lexicon under sad. You’ve got weepies, of course. And ubiquitous dramas. But both those end with either death or change. There isn’t a genre where the protagonist just stumbles on, helpless. Movies aren’t meant to be like life that way. Audiences don’t want to be told that loneliness and defeat can triumph. We can cope with death on-screen. A sad life is infinitely more hellish. Maybe that’s why movie marketing departments prefer the word comedy. Like Jason Reitman’s new comedy, Young Adult. It’s the saddest film of the year. Watching it, you come to realise: a woman without intuition is a heart-breaker, alright. But not in a good way.
The movie is about a ghost writer called Mavis Gary. Mavis is nearly forty, divorced, bitter. She is damn lucky to still look like Charlize Theron, given her diet of microwave food and alcohol. But time is catching up with her. One day, Mavis receives an e-mail from an old high-school sweetheart, informing her that he has recently become a father. This message is misinterpreted by Mavis as a cry for help, and so she decides to win back her old boyfriend, by sabotaging his marriage. With her trusty Pomeranian wedged into a pink holdall, Mavis heads back to Mercury, Minnesota, determined to relive her glorious past. She was not what you’d call a nice girl in her youth. Nostalgia is an excuse, to act like a total bitch.
The male version of Young Adult works better; it’s called Bad Santa. With a man in the lead, we’re more ready to laugh with a drunk, no matter how sour or surly. When it’s a woman who’s drunk, she’s a pariah. It’s ugly for a woman not to care about other people’s feelings. Maybe that’s why this movie shies off big laughs. Whereas, in Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton could punch pre-teens in the face, and make a joke of it; in Young Adult, Charlize Theron is vilified for using harsh words. This is because a man can be a drunk and still be a hero to other men. Recklessness is masculine. When a woman is reckless, other women think her cruel. There’s no such thing as female bravado. There’s no female Don Quixote. For a woman, being a misfit is sad. It’s not even tragic. The truth in Young Adult is that Charlize doesn’t even seem to enjoy being bad.
A possible Best Actress nomination hasn’t been mooted for no reason. Theron’s Mavis is a complex and finely nuanced performance. I’m not taking away from that, when I say it’s not funny. But it’s important to recognise: the movie is more a drama than a black comedy. And quite a meek drama, at that. Mavis is never allowed to relish being a bitch. Her meltdown at the baby naming ceremony is shrewish where it could be Shakespearian. She isn’t permitted to be dangerous. It’s as if, worried about alienating a female audience, the film-makers have tried to make Mavis palatable by making her powerless. I’m sorry, but she’d be a lot more fun if she crashed into Mercury, Minnesota with the power to ruin her ex-boyfriend’s life.
Young Adult is downbeat where it should be wild. There’s too much of Mavis on the verge of tears. Either she’s alone and gazing into the abyss, or else she’s trudging around town with sad sack Patton Oswalt. I understand that calamity has to follow Mavis wherever she goes, because she’s misjudged her life and spent years living out a failed dream. But the idea that the film shouldn’t be sexy in the least seems ludicrous. It goes back to my Bad Santa comparison, where the lead character had charisma to go with his malaise. In contrast, Mavis seems to become almost asexual for being on-edge. She’s treated like a nerd. But she still looks like a supermodel. This is a woman whose bad deeds should be scandalous.
Maybe I wanted a different movie. For an idea of how I think Young Adult should have played, take a look at the Between Two Ferns sketch Charlize Theron made with Zach Galifianakis in 2010. In it, she plays a tearful, coquettish version of herself. It’s clear she that she enjoys the chance to be naughty. Now admittedly, this isn’t the sort of role you get nominated for in the Oscars. It’s all a bit daft and both parties seem to be having a lot of fun. But Charlize is a thousand times more entertaining to watch in this thing than the whole of Jason Reitman’s movie. My problem with Young Adult is that it treats Mavis like an August Strindberg heroine: doomed to tears. No-one in Bad Santa let sadness get in the way of laughs.