I really liked Young Adult for about 24 hours. Which is pretty impressive, because I used to have a completely unfair, knee-jerk aversion to anything written by Diablo Cody since she won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 2008. I hadn’t even seen Juno at the time, and it took me multiple viewings years later to concede that maybe she wasn’t the worst thing to happen to independent comedy since Kevin Smith jacked his ego into the Internet. I still stand by my interpretation that Jennifer Garner plays a needy velociraptor who looks ready to claw Ellen Page’s baby out of her stomach and run hissing back to her nest at any moment. But soundtrack aside, it was far from the hyperverbal twee-pocalypse I imagined.
So I went into Young Adult with moderately high expectations, and was duly rewarded with the most pleasantly misanthropic comedy I’d seen this year. But over the next few days something nagged at me. I could forgive all the usual stuff– the clichéd public meltdown in the third act, how unbelievably well put-together Charlize Theron’s character was able to appear given the debilitating amount of alcohol she drank every night, and how the plot was basically a less-sophisticated retelling of Jason Reitman’s earlier film Up In The Air. No, what bugged me was that its basic assumptions about being a writer were wrong.
I think scriptwriters and audiences become more savvy every five years or so. People know now that you can’t use a computer to zoom in, remove the side of a building, and see what’s inside the cash register on the first floor using the surveillance camera footage from the ATM across the street. You don’t really see cops picking up firearms at the scene of a crime by sticking pencils in gun barrels anymore. It doesn’t happen every day, but occasionally there’s an acknowledgement on television that New York and California aren’t populated solely by white people. And while most of us know that you can’t outrun an explosion, or that in space no one can hear your starship engines scream, those tropes are so ingrained in cinema that they’re kind of charming.
But realistic portrayals of the business of publishing or writing fiction? Forget about it. I can’t think of a film this year that got it right. My biggest problem with Paul wasn’t that the laughs per minute ratio was distressingly low. It rankled me that not only was Nick Frost’s character able to find instant success with a fictionalized retelling of the events from the film, but that as an aspiring science fiction writer he could find any fulfillment in the result. Friends With Benefits exists in a fantasy world where the number of people who read magazines is actually greater than the number of staff members they annually let go. And the minutiae of the writing life as portrayed in Young Adult stuck with me like a kernel of popcorn between the teeth. It just doesn’t make sense that Theron’s character would be ignorant of the basic economics of bookselling, or that her process– eavesdropping on teenagers to get inspiration for dialogue– should be portrayed as a shameful shortcut for imagination.
These aren’t the most significant flaws in the plot, and at least one point of the story rings true. Judging from the narration of excerpts from her work in progress, there’s a reason Theron’s books aren’t selling. But I couldn’t help coming back to those little misassumptions, and pulling at those bleeding threads was all it took to begin an escalating erosion of goodwill. I don’t expect Hollywood to understand what it’s like to be a struggling writer of books anymore than I trust movies or television to provide a realistic portrayal of the physical effects of alcohol abuse. But there’s a deliberate care evident in Young Adult’s happy-go-lucky misanthropy, and it’s a shame to have it unravel due to rote story contrivances and sloppy attention to detail.