Diablo Cody, top left, and Jason Reitman. (Top left, Evan Agostini…)
It was the last day of a speedy, 30-day shoot for Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" and the crew was ready to escape the cutting cold of suburban New York last November. But Reitman wasn't yet satisfied, even though all the scene he was shooting required was that his star, Charlize Theron, pull an audiocassette out of a bag and stick it into her car's tape player.
Theron was playing the unstable ghost writer Mavis Gary, and the tape was a talisman of a life she once led that had vanished along with her youth, leaving Mavis a sad, 37-year-old singleton. Desperate to reclaim her glory years, Mavis was about to drive back to her small Minnesota hometown, determined to steal away her happily married high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) from his new family.
The tape, which that former flame had given Mavis decades earlier, was both a driving diversion and character motivation, an emotional trigger into the past. And Reitman wanted to make sure those facts registered on Mavis' face, prompting him to shoot the simple sequence about a dozen times. "Charlize — this time, take a beat when you take it out. Look at it. Then put it in," said Reitman, hidden beneath layers of down. "Her life is incomplete and she's looking back at the last moment when she was truly happy."
Theron, dressed like a schlubby child in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and baggy sweats for her starring role in Reitman's black comedy, seemed to understand the director's need for getting the moment just right.
"She's suffering what we all suffer," Theron said back in her trailer, sporting a day-old makeup effect she'd applied herself. "Is this as good as it gets? Was life better back then? Mavis is pathetic and desperate, and you kind of want to stop and stare at the car wreck — she's in this beautiful accident."
"Young Adult" was written by Reitman's "Juno" collaborator Diablo Cody, the much celebrated stripper-turned-writer who catapulted onto the Hollywood scene four years ago when her small-town story of a pregnant teenager turned into the indie hit of the year, earning Cody an Oscar for original screenplay and cementing her relationship with Reitman. Since then, she's written the horror flick "Jennifer's Body" and created the Showtime series "United States of Tara."
Now the duo is back with a very different narrative — an unrelenting portrait of a woman trapped in a state of arrested development. But where "Juno" was hopeful despite the circumstances of the main character's condition, "Young Adult" is both punishing and guaranteed to leave audiences perplexed with its nontraditional third act.
Reitman has been messing with audiences since his ambitious feature debut in 2005, when both Democrats and Republicans thought his sendup of the powerful tobacco lobby, "Thank You for Smoking," was in defense of their respective agendas. Since then, he's endeared both abortion rights advocates and abortion opponents with "Juno," and he split audiences down the middle with his ambiguous ending to his 2009 film about a smooth job-cutter, "Up in the Air."
But that was all child's play compared to "Young Adult."
"We really wanted to elicit a reaction in people," Cody said while sipping a latte at a coffee shop near her Studio City home. "People cringe [when watching the movie]. They cover their eyes. It's really a horror movie reaction. I don't know why you would write movies if you didn't want people to feel strongly. It's fun. It's fun to manipulate people."
Reitman — a little less confrontational — strives for his films to generate conversation with his audiences. "My favorite thing about the response to my films so far is that half the audience thinks one thing and the other thinks another. It lets me know I'm doing my job right," said the 34-year old director. "It's easy to manipulate people to think one thing. What's more interesting to me is to leave an audience with more complex feelings that will end up reflecting who they are."
Birth of a character
Cody began crafting "Young Adult" two years ago while on a visit to the home she owns in Minneapolis to retrieve some belongings. During a fitful night in which she slept in the hallway of the unfurnished residence, she began writing about an unlikable protagonist who, while writing the last chapter of her young adult series, spends hours watching reality TV and eavesdropping on the conversations of teenagers. She pulls at her beautiful blond tresses, constantly has a scowl on her face and has a penchant for treating others dismally.
"Mavis is a projection of my worse self," said Cody. "I'm a woman in my 30s who writes about teenagers, who has been accused of being immature and emotionally stunted. And I'm guilty of some compulsive, vindictive behaviors. I saw myself in her, but I thought, 'What's the worst possible version of that?' It was really cathartic to write that character and to channel bad qualities into someone who had no filter."