By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 5, 2011 at 2:32PM
In a year of some pretty remarkable female performances, from veteran Meryl Streep to virtual newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, there's something of a dark horse in the pack. A previous Oscar-winner, and double nominee, who gets to show a different side of herself, with a comic touch previously seen only in "Arrested Development" guest spots and viral videos, while playing as dark and unsympathetic a character as she's ever tackled -- we're talking about Charlize Theron in "Young Adult."
Marking the second team-up of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, the writer and director of the acclaimed comedy "Juno," the film sees Theron play Mavis, a thirtysomething divorcee, and writer of novels for teens, who returns to her home town to try and win back her old high school boyfriend, and pretty much goes about destroying everything in her path on the way. It's one of the best, albeit most uncompromising, comedies of the year, and goes into limited release this Friday. We were there for a press conference with Reitman, Cody, Theron and co-star Patton Oswalt a week or two back, where they discussed the film, its indelible central character, and their approach to the work; check the highlights out below, while "Young Adult" hits theaters on December 9th, before going wider on December 16th. Some mild spoilers ahead, y'all.
Theron's character is the ghost-writer of a "Sweet Valley High"-style series of novels, named Waverley Prep. Cody, a long-time fan of that style, explains that her own love of the genre informed Mavis' arrested development. "I’ve been an avid consumer of young adult literature since I was a young adult. And I think some people leave that stuff behind when they become old adults, but I never did. I was always interested in the fantasy world created in those novels, and that, I think, is the kind of thing we see reflected in pop culture more now than ever, with reality shows and these weird, fully made-up people living these fake fairytale lives on camera," she explained. "And I think the idea of somebody whose priorities were completely screwed up, who wanted to live in that world, even though it’s completely unattainable, that was intriguing to me."
Theron might not have sympathized with her character, but still would like to hang out with her.
"Young Adult" features one of the least ingratiating lead characters to be seen on screen in quite some time. Theron, no stranger to tough characters, doesn't even attempt to defend Mavis' behavior, but ultimately, sees her as a human being. "I think it’s very easy to kind of look at somebody and just kind of throw a label on them. I’m not a big fan of overly justifying bad behavior, or why people are the way they are. I think that it’s a cop-out. And I don’t have a lot of empathy for that. But I never had a hard time not liking her. I would love to go and have a beer with her. I mean, I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend. But I would love to hang out with her. I think she’s entertaining about all of her stuff."
What will frustrate some audiences about the film, is that while Mavis reaches a degree of self-realisation, it's not the kind of easy resolution that most starry comedies have. The director explains that this is because he believes that people are only capable of a certain degree of change. "I think everyone deceives themselves," Reitman says. "I like characters that don’t change because I don’t think people change, or they very rarely do, or they do by a tiny percent. I think people have revelatory moments and they learn things, but most often they don’t change off of those things or they change for five days. The number of times you’ve gone on a diet for five days or become a vegan for five days or become more conscientious about some thing or gone to temple or whatever it is. We have moments where we think oh I should be doing that more. But we generally don’t make giant - - I remember I told my therapist, I said 'I’m worried that if this works I won’t be a good writer anymore' and he said 'Don’t worry, you’re only capable of about five or 10% improvement.' And I think that’s true for people in general, so that’s why 'Up in the Air' ends the way it does and that’s why this movie ends the way it does."
Reitman sees the writer's job as akin to a tailor's, fitting the part perfectly to an actor.
As an Oscar-nominated writer himself, there could be a tricky conflict directing someone else's screenplay. But as Reitman says of his relationship with Cody, "we get along so well and we trust each other so much, there’s never been a question of whether or not she was going to be on set." And furthermore, he sees it as crucial that a writer is on set at all times: "I strangely feel as a writer on set the job is to be a tailor. I know [Aaron] Sorkin would be pissed if I said this, but if an actor can’t say the lines, in my opinion it’s not the actor’s fault. If you put on a pair of clothes that don’t fit, it’s not your fault, it’s the clothes fault. And the clothes should be tailored and that’s how I feel about dialogue. If I’m with an actor and they’re struggling with the words, then I tailor the words for the actor. Very rarely would I say this is the line, you need to say the line."
More often than not, writers on screen seem impossibly glamorous and adventurous, but as two people who make their living from the trade, Cody and Reitman know the truth, and wanted to put it on screen. "I thought it was a fairly true point of view on what it’s like to write," Reitman says, "which is it’s a really lonely existence. Often it feels like a trip to Office Depot makes me feel as though I accomplished something today. I did something and you do it for the pure reason of if I didn’t do this it really would feel like I did nothing, but I had an adventure. I picked up toner. And being a writer is tricky in that your sense of accomplishment is always so varied. Is it by page count? Is it by that you wrote something special? Will anyone ever read this? Will anyone ever see this? And I don’t think that changes no matter how much success you have. Every time I write I feel like this is awful, no one will ever see this, or if they do, they’ll never hire me again. So I think you really capture the truth of a writer’s life in those first eight pages, which became the first eight minutes of this movie and that got me excited because I never, I don’t believe I’ve seen it portrayed quite that way, which is alone. It’s the sound of the whistling of the wind, you know. It’s falling asleep on your sofa in the middle of the day and waking up and thinking that you’re never going to amount to anything."
While his films have all been comedies to date, Reitman doesn't see himself as a comic director.
With "Young Adult" following "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno" and "Up in the Air," Reitman is now four-for-four when it comes to acclaimed comedies, not to mention that he's the son of genre legend Ivan Reitman. But he doesn't see his job as bringing the laughs out of the scripts. "It’s not the job on set to be funny," Reitman says. "It’s not your job in editing to be funny. Funny happens, drama happens in the writing. After that it’s about tonal control. It’s about how you manipulate the audience to feel the thing you want them to feel...this always goes back to a piece of advice that my father gave me and he literally gave it to me the night before I started shooting 'Thank You For Smoking.' And he said always remember it’s not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for truth. And the only thing you’re trying to achieve on set is honesty. You look at a performance, you look at anything the way people interact, the location, the way you’re shooting it, does it feel truthful because you’re not going to be able to tell if it’s funny. Every once in a while it’s okay that’s hilarious, but you always know when it feels like bullshit or not."
Gaining perhaps even more praise in early reviews than Theron is Patton Oswalt, the veteran stand-up comedian whose performance has gotten rave reviews, despite his biggest dramatic role to date being the little-seen indie "Big Fan." He might not have been the most obvious choice, but Oswalt explains that a friendship with Reitman, helped in part by both owning French bulldogs, helped him out. "We met at an awards ceremony and we were just gabbing about movies, and I was presenting an editor’s award. So then we started talking. He saw on my phone, I had a picture of my French bulldog. And he goes, 'I have a French bulldog,' and we started showing back and forth," Oswalt said. "And then I started to go to these screenings at his house every Sunday. And then it just kind of led to these table reads early for the script, so you know, I got this movie the way a squatter gets an apartment. I was just there. You know, like, 'Ah, he’s got his mattress and his hot plate. Let him have it. He’s nice. The kids like him. He sweeps up the hall. Come on.'"
Cody's says her "Sweet Valley High" will be R-rated.
In the works for a while, and talked up a few weeks back by Cody when we spoke to her, saying the project was "closer than ever," and comparing it to "American Graffiti." And, somewhat, unexpectedly, she won't be pulling her punches, suggesting that younger teens will have to sneak in for the film. "I wrote the 'Sweet Valley High' movie that is currently progressing toward production, I hope," Cody said at the press conference. "We're hoping for the hard 'R' [rating]."
James Gandolfini nearly played Mavis.
Ok, obviously this isn't true. But when Theron told of walking out of the first table read and saying "I knew we were gonna make the film together," Oswalt joked, "I was glad, because the person who read before you was Gandolfini, and he was not a good Mavis...He was so raw. And the studio wanted him so bad... Oh, it was so close."