Holiday Movie Wrap-Up & Why "Young Adult" Caused Controversy Amid Critics

WARNING! Spoiler-heavy blog entry!

Through the joy of gift certificates and discounts, I was able to see three of this year's holiday movie offerings. I finally took in The Muppets, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and Young Adult. Thanks to our holiday surplus, we're also planning to see the latest Mission Impossible soon too.

As for The Muppets, I ignored all the press before seeing the movie. I felt happy just to see them onscreen again. But I can understand some of the reactions of the dissatisfied. I guess while I was watching, I wasn't imagining that we were seeing the real Muppets. Rather just another show they were putting on together. I imagined them calling cut and all the Muppets hanging out together in between takes. So I didn't have that same visceral "Kermit wouldn't live alone in a mansion!" kickback that many others did. I did tear up at most of the Jim Henson references, I was kind of expecting Steve Martin to pop up at some point and I did cry like an emotionally unstable little baby (Are there any other kind?) when they started singing, "It's time to start the music..."

I feel like a lot of people were maybe unprepared for the small scope of the movie. But if you look back, lots of the Muppet movies are small in scale. Maybe it's only that they felt bigger when we were kids. I liked the focus on the show, the theater, the juxtaposition of that trademark Muppet optimism vs. the gritty reality of show business. (Though it is ironic that the villain of the movie sort of threatens to do exactly what Disney has already done, buy the Muppet name and merchandise it into oblivion.)

Maybe it's because I saw it on Christmas night. Maybe it's because I was with good friends. Whatever the reason, I was able to relax and enjoy. I was also able to understand Frank Oz's script frustrations. Though, I think way too much was made of his few public sentences about why he didn't want to be involved. (Can't we be forgiving of the pioneer who maybe just didn't feel like working with the material again?) The truth is, they'll never be the same as they were when they were in Jim's hands. If you can let that go, you can and will enjoy The Muppets.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was fantastic. As a lover of the original Sherlock stories, I've enjoyed all the recent Sherlock revivals. (Though Sherlock is so frequently portrayed, I guess it's unfair to call two movies and a BBC series a "revival". The master detective is always around, isn't he?) To me, Sherlock stories, original and new, are always easy to enjoy. Because it's classic fiction, it's open to interpretation. Fair game, I say. It's why I never have a problem with multiple comic book movies. Classic characters belong to all of us, so the more versions we can see of them the better.

Game of Shadows was all fun, all the time. A modern take on an amalgamation of classic stories done in Guy Ritchie's signature style. The sequel followed the golden rule of amping up the action, the pacing, the jokes and the stakes. And more than a few of us giggled like nerds when first mention of "Reichenbach Falls" was made. We knew what was coming. The Roma culture was portrayed colorfully and real Roma music was used during their scenes. This is one I'll see again if I have the chance.

But my viewing marathon was taking place while a little drama of my own was unfolding in my private film world. (What, you don't have one of those? You should get one, private film worlds are fun.)

I've talked about this before, but I belong to a women's critical association, the WFCC. At this time every year, the WFCC's award results are released and inevitably, every single year, major drama unfolds following the release of those results. Comments sections blow up. Sentiments of "Oh, they just don't get it" resound across the internet. Plenty of critics associations release their rewards this time of year before the official award season starts. To be fair, awards will always draw ire. Because that insinuates there are losers and there's nothing more fun for movie geeks (I would know, I am one.) than to argue with each other about movies. It's what we do. It's who we are. So some drama is to be expected. It's fair.

But amid the dozens of critical associations, the WFCC seems to draw the most wicked barbs. Why? Because all the critics are women. Despite the fact that ever since film has existed, the majority of critics and critical associations have been comprised of men, there is something really rage-inducing for some people about the fact that a group of women would come together to give out their own awards. I never heard the same complaints about Siskel and Ebert. NOBODY ever said, "Oh, they're just giving that a thumbs up because they're men!" And yet, that's most of the response the WFCC awards generate on the internet.

Mavis is steeped in commercialism,
buying everything aimed at her
age-group and younger. We
see her frequently in stores,
watching commercials.
Of course, it's more complex than that. A good way to introduce you to the drama would be to give you a way in. This year, there's been a lot of disagreement over a couple of specific nominations. Over a week ago, I started to get the arguments in my inbox over "Young Adult".

There's a "Worst Female Images" award given out by the WFCC every year. This film was nominated and several members of the WFCC disagreed with that nomination. It did not win the award. In my opinion, that's a big relief.

When I saw "Young Adult" I initially left the theater feeling dissatisfied, robbed of a concrete conclusion. You've been warned, I spoil everything in this blog. Stop reading if you haven't seen the movie.

Charlize Theron's character, Mavis, as written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, is essentially unredeemable. Or rather, she chooses not to seek redemption. She goes through, what for any other person, would be a life-changing mental breakdown. A long-time-coming moment where she could confront ghosts that have been haunting her for years. She runs back to her hometown during a moment of weakness in an attempt to win back her high school boyfriend, despite the fact that he's happily married with a new baby. (Not coincidental timing, as we find out at the climax of the film, that Mavis was once pregnant with his baby and miscarried. Something she has never rebounded from emotionally. It's what has stunted her growth as an adult.)

Mavis is also a raging alcoholic. She admits it out loud at one point. She drinks CONSTANTLY in the movie. As I processed the film after watching, what struck me was that this was a character deep in the throws of her alcoholic lifestyle. She's quite ill. Is she superficial? Yes. Is she nasty? Very much so. She's a character in crisis, but she's also a character in denial. One of the major symptoms of alcoholism.

Oswalt's character "Matt" shares some of Mavis' immaturity
and stunted emotional growth, but for very
different reasons. 
I always ask myself after seeing a movie, what did that movie have to say? What was it really about? Immediately following the film, my knee jerk reaction was, "This movie has nothing to say." It's because I was mad at Mavis, angry at her treatment of Patton Oswalt's character Matt. But I couldn't have been more wrong. What I was feeling was the weight of effective storytelling. GOOD writing from a literary point of view where there wasn't a happy ending. But I can understand how the feeling of frustration that the story evokes might lead a female critic to nominate it for Worst Female Images in the heat of the moment.

But unlike many frustratingly sexist movies, Mavis is not the only woman in the film. There are four well-balanced, quirky, interesting young mothers who have their own band, good relationships with other women and who pity Mavis. There are two older mothers of adults who can see Mavis' breakdown coming a mile away and try to help her. There's a best friend at the very beginning of the film who looks at Mavis through nervous eyes, even she sees that the storm clouds are gathering.

To me, Worst Female Images in movies are those that are frustratingly one-dimensional or achingly stereotypical. There is nothing one-dimensional about any of the characters in Young Adult. In fact, the story is more slice-of-life, complex and well-layered than most movies ever even try for. Some of the most insulting, simpering female characters I watch are in big shiny romantic comedies. Is Mavis a good, moral character? Absolutely not. But good, moral characters that have nothing to discover or relate to an audience don't make for very entertaining movies, do they? And Mavis is only one of two women in the film who seems unwilling to confront reality.

The other is Matt's sister, who upon seeing Mavis for the first time in years gets giddy excited and reminds Mavis that she once baked her Rice Krispies in high school, and then demands praise for such a simplistic action twenty years later. Clearly, she still wants to be one of the cool kids. But every other woman in the film has a firm grasp on her sanity.

"Young Adult" ends with an eerie song choice playing over the credits. "When We Grow Up" by Diana Ross can be taken one of two ways. The repeated strains of "I don't have to change at all" are sort of left to the viewer's interpretation. Did Mavis discover that she doesn't have to change for the people back home in a positive way or a negative way? From where I was sitting, it was more of a dark realization. Mavis is going to choose to walk away, unchanged, from what should've been her moment to confront everything. Her alcoholism, her neediness, her inability to have a meaningful relationship with a man and her unrelenting vanity. (By the way, there's one tender moment that makes you hope for Mavis redemption. All I'll say is this, I've never cried at a love scene until I saw this movie.)

But what Young Adult wants to tell us is, not everybody makes that choice. Not everyone chooses to better themselves or put others first in a relationship. In other words, this movie tells us an uncomfortable truth and holds a mirror up to the realities of vanity, self-centeredness and alcoholism. (Not to insinuate that alcoholism is like a personality disorder.) It serves a different purpose than a populist, escapist, feel-good romantic comedy. And to me, that's okay. Because not all movies have to serve the same purpose.

I'd like to see Young Adult embraced by audiences. Watch a movie that challenges you. Watch a movie that people are arguing over. Watch a movie that forces you to think after the credits roll. Diablo Cody wrote a stunning screenplay, one that almost purposefully seems to, at first glance, plant some misdirected
clues. (Mavis is recently divorced, Mavis pulls her own hair out of her scalp, Mavis watches nothing but "Keeping up with the Kardashians", Mavis impulsively drives back to her hometown because she wakes up feeling blue one morning, Mavis dresses purposefully provocative.) At the end of the film, these small mentions and glimpses of things add up to one big "a-ha". The haze of alcohol. All the loose threads can be explained by Mavis' drinking problem.

The last conversation Mavis has in the film is with Matt's sister, the only person in town who still wants desperately to win Mavis' approval. What Mavis needs is someone to tell her the truth. That she has no right to look down on the people of her small town. That she is cocky and self-deluded. That she can change and have a more fulfilling life if she'll stop looking back, Uncle Rico style, to what she thinks were her glory days in high school.

Instead, Matt's sister enables Mavis, tells her she is awesome. She lives in a cool place, she has a cool job and she has shaken the dust and losers of her hometown off. Mavis thanks her and says, "I needed that." When Matt's sister asks Mavis to take her back to Minneapolis, Mavis turns to her and says, "No. You're good here." This tell us, Mavis will return unchanged. She's going to retreat to the idea that life is like high school and she came out on top, never confronting the realities and complexities of her own choices.

This is the dramatic equivalent of the killer popping up at the end of the story and finishing off the last survivor. It's not a happy ending. But it says a lot more than a happy ending would have. And let's face it, we all know a Mavis or two or three. We encounter them at our high school reunions and we meet them anew in our everyday lives and work situations. There will always be people who never see themselves as the villain, even as they perpetuate everything from minor selfishness to horrific crimes. There's always someone who thinks they are vastly superior to everyone around them. Mavis sees herself as the heroine of one of the young adult fiction books she pens instead of the broken human being she has become.

Whether Mavis was a narcissist, an alcoholic or both is up to the viewer. But "Young Adult" offered me the diversity of female characters I'm always begging for and more than that, it gave me something different. For that reason alone, it deserves an award.

What did you see over the holidays? Better yet, what's the last movie that made you angry and why?


Daniel said...

I’ve seen a glut of films and I’m still working through some, The Muppets and Game of Shawdows have gone unseen as of right now, but you are spot on about Young Adult.

Cody really taps into something so real and raw that it’s truly amazing to watch. The more that film settles in the more I think she and Reitman have really hit on a cord that isn’t shown in most films, I personally loved the ending, it’s truer to real life than most of what we see in the movies.

Audrey M. Brown said...

The longer I've spent away from Young Adult, the more I've really been dwelling on it. It's really trying to accomplish something different and I think that initially irks a lot of critics. But again, the more I process it, the more I see just how carefully constructed it really was. Good to know I'm not the only one!