Earlier this week, I made Young Adult my Cable Pick Of The Day, which touched off a conversation in the comments about whether director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody let Charlize Theron’s character Mavis off the hook too much for her horrible behavior in that film. Here’s a sample of some of the discussion.
Hooded Justice: “I understand that other people are over the moon about this film, but I really couldn’t get behind it, especially the way it lets Theron’s character off the hook at the end. Maybe other people don’t see it that way, but I definitely got the impression that she hadn’t changed one iota.”
raoulfgonzo: “I’m with you Hood. I enjoyed it for the most part, especially Oswalt, Theron, and Wilson, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Theron’s character once I saw the ending. I know that may sound odd, but to me a film has to be able to live on in my mind if I’m going to watch it again or have a favorable opinion of it. I have to think that even if the main character is an asshole and doesn’t change that I could come back to the film and still enjoy my time with it, but that ending just soured it for me. And I realize there’s a lot of worth in a filmmaker who doesn’t judge his characters for their horrible actions, but I have found that I, personally, have a very definite line for when a character should and shouldn’t be judged—if that character’s actions affect another person. Don’t judge a person who smokes crack, but go ahead and judge a homewrecker. I’m not saying that a character who does horrible things to other people can’t be a compelling protagonist (most of the Coen Bros movies feature said characters) but if I’m going to empathize with them then I have to feel like they aren't getting away with their assholery.”
Tyler: “I hear what you’re saying about a film ‘living on in your mind’ and I agree with a lot of what you say, but more as positives for why I love the movie! I love that the story is built around a character who does do horrible things to other people, is primed for learning a lesson and turning a corner but ultimately just throws it away. (I’m a sucker for dark comedy.) I can see how that leaves a sour-after-taste; it sort of turns the movie to a bit of a tragedy, but I like how it defies those redemptive expectations. In the end, I don’t think we are suppose to feel like she’s getting away with her assholery, she’s still gotta live with herself and the movie has clearly shown that’s not a very pleasant experience. That said, what I do think is impressive about the movie too is the way that Charlize and Reitman, with parceling out little bits of Mavis’ backstory and those small glimpses of self-awareness, give us insight into how Mavis turned out to be the person that she is. They don’t forgive her for her actions but they don't totally condemn her either.”
raoulfgonzo: “Yeah I’m with you, and most of my general statements above don’t specifically apply to Young Adult, which I enjoyed up until the very end. I think just about everything you say is true—she does have to live with herself and that is perhaps the worst punishment. But I’m thinking about this from an additional angle —I’m an amateur screenwriter/director and I’ve started thinking about how things appear to not just me the creator but me the viewer. For example, I started watching Orange Is The New Black and couldn’t finish it because I felt this strong disconnect between who Piper is and who the show wants me to think she is. I’m told that if I finish the first season the show finally acknowledges how horrible Piper is, but I can’t stick with it that long and I feel like addressing her faults that late is kind of a cop out. So I look at a film and more often I don’t even ask what the director or writer intended, but how did it come off to me?”
I think that’s a reasonable standard to set; to ask yourself whether it seems like a movie is letting a character’s odious behavior slide too much (or maybe even tacitly approving of it). And while I tend to be fairly lax when it comes to judging the morality of movie characters, there have been films over the years that have rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t stand the Jodie Foster film Home For The Holidays, for example, because it expresses nothing but contempt for well-meaning small-towners trying to host a pleasant family Thanksgiving, while excusing the obnoxiousness of that family’s two outcasts (played by Robert Downey Jr. and Holly Hunter) just because they’re really cool and artistic.
To some extent, Young Adult does the same, in that Mavis eventually decides that she’s too smart and hip for her hometown—a place where, again, nearly everyone she reunites with is friendly and kind to her. And yet I feel like Mavis is humiliated enough throughout the film that her defiant “later for you hicks” at the end is framed as being somewhat self-deluded.
That’s just my gut feeling. As raoulfgonzo notes, it’s hard to ignore your own gut when you’re watching a movie. If a comedy doesn’t make you even chuckle a little, it’s easy to say it’s “not funny,” even when everybody around you is laughing their heads off. And if it strikes you that a movie is judgmental towards all the wrong people, it’s pretty hard to get on the filmmakers’ wavelength.
At the same time though, I think good writers and directors earn some leeway to be wrong—and even to be assholes about it. If the jokes are funny enough, or if there’s enough strong personal style or feeling to a film, then any sourness shooting through the picture becomes yet another way of seeing the hand of the creator. I think Young Adult is as much Diablo Cody’s movie as Jason Reitman’s, and the reason I like it more than their Juno is that it incorporates some self-loathing in with the snobbery, in a way that makes the film as a whole seem more complicated.
There’s been a lot of discussion among TV critics and fans in particular lately about characters like Walter White on Breaking Bad, Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, and Jaime Lannister on Game Of Thrones, and how much misery they have to spread before they become fundamentally unlaudable. Movies are different though, because we don’t live with those characters week after week for years. In movies, even the creepiest characters’ behavior is limited to the running time. And for just two hours, I can tolerate—and even forgive—an awful lot.
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