Monday, January 16, 2012

Jason Reitman Makes The Same Movie Twice In a Row

(Or, Character Arc, Shmaracter Arc.)

Warning - Spoiler Alert!

Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in "Young Adult"
I had the chance to check out Young Adult the other night, and I was mostly pleased. The movie was solidly entertaining, with a strong performance from Charlize Theron as a 37-year-old teen fiction ghost writer (think Sweet Valley High -- no coincidence that Young Adult scribe Diablo Cody is adapting that series into a feature) who drunkenly, blithely, coasts through life on looks and bullshit. Those who pegged Cody a one-trick pony after Juno, well, this movie more or less puts that to rest. She can write.

Patton Oswalt (The King of Queens) delivers an equally solid turn as a crippled nerd who uses a brutal hate crime beat-down (his high school mates mistakenly believed he was gay) decades earlier as an excuse to isolate from the world. Though his character and Charlize's never spoke in high school (despite her locker being right next to his,) they bond over booze, and he becomes the mentor/voice of reason to the resolutely self-destructive Theron. It's good chemistry. Thus when Theron returns to her hometown delusionally looking to hook up with her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), despite his being happily married with a new baby, sparks, naturally, fly.

But something felt amiss. I felt like I'd recently seen this movie. I thought back on other films that were thematically similar. I recalled another film I saw not too long ago that covered similar ground. And that's when it dawned on me. Oh, yeah. Up In The Air. The director? Well, Jason Reitman. Again.

So just what do Up In The Air and Young Adult have in common?
  • Both feature a quasi-successful attractive professional whose career is on the skids. 
  • Charlize Theron's and George Clooney's characters are both loners who skate by on charm and good looks, who treat those they view as lesser as, well, lesser, and who cope with the emptiness inside by having a string of meaningless affairs. 
  • Having done this for years now, both are dissatisfied with their lives and desperate for change. 
  • Both Clooney and Theron's characters fixate on someone whom they erroneously believe can "fix" them and give them a normal life, and they put it all at risk to try to start a relationship with that person.
  • But in both cases, that person is in a committed relationship and is not interested. 
  • Both of them show up at the would-be love interest`s home, unwelcome, and are asked to leave. 
  • And most importantly (for this article anyway,) now devastated, both revert right back to their old ways again, leaving the characters driving/flying off into the sunset right smack dab where they were at the beginning of the movie, their coping mechanisms reinforced.
Up In The Air was the superior film.  The key here is that Clooney's character was more sympathetic, while Theron's was inherently unlikeable. We really hoped that Clooney could get something going with Vera Farmiga and finally settle down, and our heart kind of broke a little bit when his did. Theron, on the other hand, is kind of nuts throughout and so we're never really rooting for her; plus we can see from a million miles away that she's never going to get with the object of her affection. For my money, the way to make Young Adult work better would have been to do someone no one would have seen coming -- to have Theron's high school sweetheart abandon his happy marriage and baby and pounce at the chance to hook up again with Charlize (hell, this isn't really that much of a stretch.) Boy, the drama that would have created!

The inevitable "Charlize makes a scene" scene we see coming 27 miles away.
But the point of all this to me is, something about these types of projects speaks to director Jason Reitman. And in my opinion, it's got to be the anti-character arc of both movies. As writers, we're taught in film school and all the screenwriting books that you have to have character arc--your protagonist should undergo some sort of positive change during the course of the movie. This generally means that your hero starts out with some sort of personality flaw or problem... for example, risk-averse (Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly), chauvinistic (Mel Gibson in What Women Want), overprotective (Marlin in Finding Nemo), and of course neurotic/homophobic/supercilious/obnoxious (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets). But during the course of the story, they interact with others who cause them to finally overcome their dramatic flaws and thus move from extreme to more well-rounded. Or as Nicholson would say, "You make me want to be a better man."

But in real life, people seldom arc. Obnoxious asses tend to stay obnoxious asses. Neurotic shut-ins five years later? Yep, still sitting there with the blinds drawn counting their soap bars. Of course, this is exactly why people respond so well to character arcs, because like happy endings, it's just not something we get frequently enough in reality. So along comes filmmaker Jason Reitman, who seems to be saying, "Screw character arc. It's a bullshit artifice and Homey don't play that." And you know what? Good for him. I'm glad someone is out there making successful, mainstream (indie-ish) movies that give us characters like these. Let's see movie protagonists who actually behave like real people, with all their foibles and obsessions and manias. And as writers, let's be bold and write those fascinating, dimensional and realistic fucked-up douchebags.

That said, Mr. Reitman, I think we kinda get it now, so maybe on your next film, you could kind of change up the paradigm just a wee bit.

--Jim Cirile


Anonymous said...

Good analysis. Got me thinking. Glad to see someone (Reitman) has the guts to think outside the box.

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