RIORI Vol 3, Installment 91: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009)

The Players…

Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey and a holy host of stand-up comics from the past 25 years.

The Story…

Ah, America’s Heartland. The Breadbasket, when most of the agriculture that sustains our fine nation is harvested for food, medicine and other vital consumer goods. And one of the most revered (and sometimes reviled) food production conglomerates Arthur Daniels Midland—ADM to you—is responsible from getting all that fresh corn to your tables. And cereal. And sodas. And Twinkies. And plastics. And so on.

But all is not well ADM. Vice President and corporate ladder climber Marc Whitacre smells a rat in his silo, and calls in the FBI to do their thing. Suddenly Marc is a whistleblower with dreams of rewards and promotions in protecting the interests of ADM.

Better wish him into the cornfield.

The Rant…

Out of general courtesy I’ll apologize for my long absence. I could tell you what I’ve been up to, but I know you don’t care. So let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we?

It’s funny. Steven Soderbergh evolved from art-house obscurity to award-wining director in only a few key strokes. Yeah, yeah. Lotsa directors get this left-handed complement. This guy named Spielberg jumps immediately to mind (though his oeuvre was never art-house; Night Gallery was as close as it got, but his ep starred Joan Crawford in her very twilight years. I guess that counts for something). This dude named Zemeckis went from slumming it with Used Cars to rocket to fame with the Back To The Future trilogy, not mention later on some commercial and critical goo-ga with a little film called Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan! Kurosawa wanted to be a painter; directing movies was a far flung second. Good thing he stunk at watercolors.

Considering the “meteoric” rise to fame and fortune of the esteemed above, most of their success laid in crafting films that both garner critical acknowledgment and a fun with a capital fun for audiences. Critical praise is easy to follow. The highbrow says what’s good and/or bad with a film and we grok them. What makes a person justify MoviePass’ existence is such a director getting the butts in the seats. Now, no one may argue that Saving Private Ryan is a critical delight, but it’s also a lot of fun. Harrowing fun, mind you, but entertainment is entertainment. And the box office results don’t lie. You did not need some PhD in film take their swipes. So there.

Soderbergh went from art-house whatever to major player in a few, mere steps. Out Of Sight and Traffic were terrific, bringing home the accolades and the profitable turnout. Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Elevenfor good and for ill—made remakes a viable commodity in Tinsel Town. Hell, his remake spawned an entire franchise, and don’t let Sandra Bullock turn you off, wildcat. The ticket sales didn’t lie. Soderbergh may be onto something in making his movies get rave reviews and audiences wetting their diapers with aplomb. In simpler terms, he made a splash.

(Don’t groan. That is the best pun you’ve ever heard all hour.)

To wit, I breathe a sigh of frustration. A good director should rest on that: good at directing movies. Spin the tale. Let the actors roam. Get Junkie XL to cut the soundtrack. That sort of thing. Critical acclaim and audience satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. Wait, actually the audience matters most than any shiny shiny from the front row. I’m willing to betcha audience hoo-ha is more potent than critical blah. Remember, I’m no critic, just an observer. Movie critics make money. I sell blood to pay the rent. Kidding. It wasn’t my blood.

That being said (not the blood thing, not yet), I feel that the rabble may influence the highbrows more than they’d like to admit. What do these dopes with their Big Gulps and Trump bumper stickers know about cinema? Precious little, and that’s okay. Soderbergh’s CV, to them, came fully formed like Zeus hatched from Cronos’ skull. Tight drama, tight action. It works for me, too. Good movies are good movies, no matter how wobbly the director finds themselves on the front row at a Stones’ concert. Shouting out requests. And being heard. The snots with their columns may often bow down not to the doyens of cinematic f*ckery: the fickle, salt-of-the-earth, flavor-in-Columbus crowd. Them’s with their faith in MoviePass, y’all. Butts squarely in the seats.

What I am ultimately driving at is that cagey directors like Soderbergh made his name by not giving a sh*t about critical praise. They want to serve their muse and get others to go on the trip (not necessarily in that order). If he got some, hooray. I don’t give a sh*t if he was the first director to shoot a film on Mars with the remaining Monty Python troupe members recreating a live-action musical version of Akira. It would be entertaining, even without heavy drugs. And why do I claim this silliness? Because Soderbergh knows how to create films that are both solidly entertaining and innovative. And please the popcorn munchers and the highbrows in equal measure. Only Spielberg has straddled that line so well, but it took him a bit longer. I mean it took 11 years of films for Soderbergh to win his Best Director Oscar. It took Spielberg 25 years. That says something about canny filmmaking like Soderbergh: critical and commercial delights. Not an easy task to accomplish ever in Hollyweird when the bottom line is the bottom line.

This isn’t fandom gushing here. It’s respect, a hard won commodity in the realm of movie making. Which is oddly almost a thankless job in Hollywood. Can we say “creative differences” anyone? Ask Richard Donner about his truncated work on the blockbuster Superman II. Considering Soderbergh’s canon is full of quirky and edgy undertones his films deliver. The money. Hollywood might say thank you and not call on Richard Lester for Ocean’s XVIII.

It’s not like Soderberg is one of those crazy taskmasters like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Ford were, nor is he one of those odious filmmakers that subscribe to auteur theory. He just wants to makes films that serve his muse (and often id) and hopes the audience takes his hand holding the clapperboard. This apparent, amiable not giving a sh*t execution of his movies can make Soderbergh seem like some roguish dooshnozzle to the cinematic elite. Praise is given, sometimes reluctantly, and just like with all our successful heroes we can wait for the opportunity to take them down a peg or two.

Which is why when a popular, respected director with all but praise to their profession drops a turd in the punchbowl, Variety is all over it like Oprah on a powdered doughnut. Not every director has a sterling record. For every Raging Bull a New York, New York creeps behind. Scorsese had string of winners before the stinkers, and when the hose came out the furor of the guy “losing his touch” eclipsed the relatively recent, “no duh” praise to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The snobs accused and blamed Scorsese for calling it in, or worse. And boy did they sh*t the bed for it. Especially after Raging Bull was released.

I do have a point coming. Relax. Lemme take a bathroom break first…


That’s better. Better to pissed off than pissed on I say. What, heard that one before?

Sometimes an esteemed director “takes a risk.” Deviating from their usual bread and butter. Kinda like when horror porn enfant terrible Eli Roth to a break from stuff that bleeds all over stuff that bleeds and chose to be Halloween prankster and gave us the big adapt of The House With A Clock In Its Walls (starring Jack Black, no less). Eyebrows were raised. Was this some sort of joke? Yes, it was and I, for one, went along with it. Good movie. Lotsa creepy crawlies and frights and Black as the bumbling, chubby warlock. My kid thought it was too scary, and informed her of what kind of movies the director usually made. She said no thanks.

And no thanks to me either. I’ve seen a few of Roth’s output. I like scary, not vomit inducing. But him “taking a risk” directing a PG Halloween movie with magic and mayhem (“playing against part” if you will) well outside his comfort zone certainly got folks to take notice, of only for the wrong reason: how could Mr Hostel become Willy Wonka?

Granted, Roth isn’t really an esteemed director. Infamous and a grade A schlockmeister to be sure, but still the guy has a rep, a cachet. I think my above example rings true for those filmmakers are godheads to film geeks like you, me and them. Take Spielberg. For the first 15 years of his profession as director his stock in trade was in sci-fi and action/adventure flicks. When he strayed into the field of drama, people (and critics) went bugf*ck, to put it mildly. And based on a book! Written from the POV of a black woman! Quincy Jones did the soundtrack while John Williams cried in his beer! And introduced to the world to an edgy comic as a victim of domestic abuse!

World, meet Whoopi. Whoopi, meet the world and don’t let Oprah run you down.

Talking about taking a risk. The Color Purple must’ve invited more scrutiny about it was made (and by who) than the merits of the movie proper. What right does this 30-something, Jewish white boy have documenting the black experience? According to my fact checking department (of which I have none) the black community did scratch their heads as a collective whole as to what to make of this guy Spielberg taking such a “risk?” Well, even though I don’t give much credence to the AMPAS and its doctrine, Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars as well as cleaning up at the box office. Who wants some Selsun Blue?

Soderbergh is also know for being “risky” when helming a film. I’m not talking outright subject matter (although it’s well-understood his muse straddles a line between intimacy and sexuality), or even the story. He’s just so very staunch in his belief of let the creator create, regardless of their endeavors. It’s called integrity, my fellow popcorn munchers and to be a successful filmmaker in an industry that is always in a hot hurry to sell the newest “it” requires two things: a vision and a maverick conduct. Whenever Soderbergh takes his risks, it often comes up in the dailies he challenged himself a tossed off feel. Soderbergh’s manna has always been intrigue and tenuous relationships in his work. Makes no diff if it’s with Ocean’s (insert number here), Oscar winner Traffic or his take on Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic, existential sci-fi Solaris. Whatever it takes and go with the flow or blow.

That being said, comedy? Um, terra incognita. Sure, the Ocean’s movies had some funny stuff, but it was a crime caper first and foremost. Already established by 2009 as a director of merit, whose films are dense, terse character studies (even his Solaris, quit groaning) to tackle a comedic story based on real events inspired by It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldWell, really?

Talk about “taking a risk” even though bowing down to a comedy is rarely regarded by the bent-nosed critics as such. For ardent fans of a director with a signature style it mostly requires extra Selsun Blue. For a director like Soderbergh who likes to challenge himself as his audience, going screwball might smell like career suicide. Especially casting a former captain of the proto Enterprise as a G-Man sans the holo avatar. But here we go.

Try not to notice Damon’s coif…

Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a rising star at ADM. He’s affable, knowledgeable and driven. He has his eyes on the stars, and maybe his head in the clouds.

Mark’s a rising star ADM. Good rep, astute, bright future awaits.  His boy scout mentlality and respect for his benefactors suddenly turns him into whistleblower when a rumor of ADM’s primary crop—read: corn—is being tampered with (maybe by Monsanto’s industrial operatives).

In hopes of gaining a lucrative promotion and becoming a hero of the common people, Mark inadvertently reveals his penchant for helping himself to the corporate coffers and threatens to derail the very investigation he helped to launch.

Well, what investigation? The FBI’s, of course. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) suspects that ADM is doing some price fixing, and because of Mark’s sterling record he might be the ideal—

Oh, you get it…


Soderbergh may make good, terse dramas and bouncy actioners. Comedy? Well, let’s just say the apple rolls away from the tree. And rolls.

Getting to the point Informant is screwy yet stiff. That odd combo seems to work here, but only to a degree. It feels kinda like an ep of “The Kids In The Hall.” Subtley surreal but not as overt. What am I watching? A comedy or sorts. It’s dry, mostly. I like dry humor. My humor is dry. The Informant is so dry it chafes. It gets a bit off-putting after a while.

I lay blame at the script. The story can’t make up its mind if the Informant! is a scrweball comedy, a manic caper when All The Presidents’ Men meets the Coen Bros circa The Big Lebowski (what else?), or a character study of a nice guy who wants to seen as nice and agrees to everything except using the common sense God gave Sylvester the cat. In short, the focus of the movie bounces back to the “A” plot, which is pretty straightforward after careening around in the B-plot, Mark’s fevered delusions of success. Informant! gets all scrambled, yet that may be the point. We’re looking at a man who is failing upwards but has convinced himself what he is doing working for the FBI (eg: climbing the corporate ladder, being an advocate on behalf of ADM, being a doting family man, etc) is the “right” thing, despite losing himself in his delusion.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is a decidely odd movie. Silly, really. It’s tough to follow the straight line towards what Soderbergh (tried) to get across here. Chuckles, sure. Maybe social commentary. Perhaps just an outlet for Damon to cut loose. Aye, that may be the rub.

Let’s talk about Damon for a moment. He’s the pinion upon which the whole wad spins, right? His Mark is an amalgam of Mr Slate from The Flintstones and Bud Abbott; superiority and insecurity’s hold on it personified. And what’s the most interesting— if not the most amusing—aspect of Informant! is the relation between how Mark’s grasp on the reality of his (self-inflicted) surroundings makes his “waking” life all the more surreal, which he does not acknowledge. With much force. His voice-overs are less random synapses of rationalization but rather a steam vent opening. Mark’s monologes are nothing but rationalizing, convincing himself if the right guy for the job. The “nice” guy.

That whole bit wasn’t conceived to be negative. After coming so far with RIORI I’ve learned how to write as a doosh without being a doosh. Well, still learning I guess. I’m not the biggest Damon fan. Sure, he’s a solid actor, reliable. And very predictble. Damon’s performance is so un-Damon it makes solid Damon almost unrecognizable. It’s a good thing. It allows young Jack Ryan (or even younger Illario) to go again his grain. Mark is the funniest thing about Informant! and he makes this flick ne big facepalm. Mark is insecurity incarnate, and also pulls of nerdy very well. Damon’s the only animated person here. Everyone else—including the much more earthy Bakula, who looks like he his head far from the clouds—are just dolts. Wallpaper. Makes Damon’s Mark all the more, well, marked. Is it a coincidence that stand-up comics comprise the supporting cast? They’re all laughing at him. I was. That was about it.

Again it was kinda tricky to follow where Soderbergh was going here. Right, comedy. But what kind? Was this some kind of corporate Three Stooges bit? Was it all about a fish out of the wrong water? A middle finger to the ardent Soderbergh audience? You can almost hear the dominos tumbling down. What adds to any comic unease is the incessant babble of Marc’s voiceovers, almost pleading for both sympathy for his plight as well as making a case for his criminal acts. Laughs in finger-pointing or you don’t know what else to do? Me? I caught the gig, but missed the show. A tight director like Soderbergh needs to be looser to pull of a giggle fest. Or a facepalm.

This movie is silly, and it’s hard to tell if that was on purpose. Knowing it was based on real events, were the real Mark’s escapades that hair-brained or was some sweetening spread across the script? Granted a lot of scenarists take liberty with the source material (eg: that pen trading thing in A Beautful Mind? Never happened, nor the ceremony ever existed. Sorry, Montblanc). I figured the writers of Informant!  did their darndest to make the film laughable. Under comedy-rube Soderbergh Informant! played out as laughble.

Like Bakula’s ‘do.

“Al? You there?”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. This is a first. The Informant! (despite my grumpier, assured yammerings over lesser movies) is the first flick here that was just not my thing. It was a solid film, well cut, but had a hard time holding my attention or churning up laughter. Despite my steaming, I can still recognize what I recognize.

Stray Observations…

  • “What else is there?”
  • Corky?
  • Bakula sports an amazing hairstyle, akin to pro football coach crica 1976. Must’ve leapt there for ideas.
  • “This involves price fixing in the lycene business.” Hide the children.
  • “You let me know about it, and I’ll tell my Dad.”
  • Pay phones. Stupid things.
  • The way Mark’s brain is wired you can almost hear the fuses blowing.
  • Never trust a guy who says, “Trust me” holding a large glass of whisky.
  • Remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Yep.
  • “Well, I think maybe I should go back to the hospital.”

Next Installment…

Matt Damon (and Emily Blunt) is on the run from The Adjustment Bureau. Wow! So?!?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 61: Lorene Scafaria’s “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World” (2012)


The Players…

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, with Connie Briton, Rob Corrdry, Adam Brody, Melanie Lynesky, Derek Luke, William L Petersen, Mark Moses, Patton Oswalt and Martin Sheen.

The Story…

A planet-killing asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, so a guy whose wife has abandoned him decides to spend the planet’s final days with a road trip to reunite with his high school sweetheart. But his flighty neighbor who tags along for the ride complicates his plans, what with her anxiety, codependency and lugging around that damned record collection.

And that silly dog. Always with the dog.

The Rant…

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality. The end of it all. The apocalypse even. And no, all that has nothing to do with our president elect. Okay, little to do.

It’s not something us humans think about often, even though we’re the only species known to be aware of our eventual end. It could happen at any minute. It could happen right now—


Sorry to let you down. Still here? The matrix ain’t crashed yet it seems.

The end comes to us all. The march of time. Illness. Car crash. Gluten allergy. Too many Warren Zevon albums jammed in the ears. A (un)fortunate few can pick their moments. Most of us just sit and wait, pestering ourselves with jobs, mortgages, tanking up at Citgo and the next ep of Madam Secretary gracing our screens that we had refinance our mortgages to afford. None of all that really matters in the longview, barring another shot of Tea Leoni’s legs.

When Death comes a-knockin’ and wants to stay for tea all you’ve done with your life—on an immediate personal level that is—amounts to no more than a Bogie one-liner. Hope bids that you can look back on your accomplishments as perhaps useful to those left behind for another cuppa. You know, your loved ones, friends, kind associates and pets (the pets’ll really miss you come suppertime. I mean the can opener; you had the thumbs and they didn’t. Commence with the staining of the rugs).

Namely, when you go—and you will and gotta—hopefully it won’t be in seclusion. Alone. Living in some spare flat surrounded by your record collection (complete with Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya), your books, several unopened tins of Fancy Feast and a grumpy cat pissed she wasn’t a viral Internet sensation first. No. Hope not. Since death is inevitable, you’d rather not want to meet it all by your lonesome. And with a busted needle on the turntable, mocking you. Kinda like Woody Allen when prophesied, “I don’t fear death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Well it’s gonna happen, and you’re fortunate if you’re not alone. If you still have a few marbles in your head and enough white blood cells in your stream, you can rest assured knowing you made some impact, positive or negative (e.g.: Nintendo Wii vs Olestra) on someone you cared about. And perhaps in some metaphysical way by a toss of the existential dice of mortality it might get reciprocated. Someone else will be glad to feed that cat with the malfunctioning bladder, and perhaps keep the thing from pissing on the rest of your Zevon collection. Poor, poor pitiful you.

*quitting the Zevon references now. Looking for the next best thing. Like empty beer cans. Ducking*

The message here is thus: you’re gonna go, perhaps with a bang or a whimper. But those onomatopoeia only matter if there’s someone around to hear them. When that time comes—and again it will—it’s best not to be alone. Have someone you care about be around. Hell, you best find someone.

To start, I recommend finding a date…

This is it. The Big One. Armageddon. Total annihilation of everything on Earth, including the planet itself. Better get your sh*t together. For what reason no one can say.

Even before asteroid Mathilda was on her collision course with Earth, Dodge (Carell) already had his non-life in order to fall apart. Not long before the grim news of the planet’s demise his wife left him. Left him to stew in his own juices about how ineffectual his existence is. His now quite ironic job as an insurance agent. His best friend is only the cleaning lady, and his fringe buddies are all louts and selfish kids. His family is…somewhere else. Along with his absentee wife. And now the end is nigh, and there’s nothing worth saving, save lost dreams and wasted opportunities. What to do, what to do?

Road trip!

Since Dodge is now alone and with nothing to lose—thanks to that damned asteroid—hell, why not? He decides to do the sensible thing, what with the calendar growing ever obsolete and indulge in an old fantasy we’ve all considered: seek out that high school sweetheart years later on and find out what they’ve been up to. After all, what the hell could go wrong?


Eccentric next door neighbor Penny (Knightley) is futilely trying to escape a sh*tty relationship before the end. Why spend your last days with a d*ckhead? Instead, Penny chooses to hang out with a schmuck instead. Dodge shares his last wish with her, and she explains she’s always wanted to reconnect with her estranged parents back in London. Before either of them could muse, “Hey, why not?” a riot (one of a never-ending many) drives them out of town as fast as their little car can take them.

Along the way, Dodge and Penny encounter a lot of curious strangers, all with their own armageddon wish list. All contain tales of lost loves, missed opportunities and fanciful whims of when and where to go. It’s virtually impossible to not put things in perspective for Dodge and Penny, who have to look each other in the face into the looming destruction in the sky.

So how far will their ride go?

Until the ends of the Earth…

I’m going to try and keep this short.

I know the I’m Not There installment ran a little long. Okay, Homerian epic is a more apt description. Hey, it was a heavy movie, very detailed and invited any movie fan to scratch her beard and try to assimilate all of director Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic vision into a simple singularity.

Um, the word count at the end of that installment exceed 7000 words, twice as much on average here at RIORI. That’s a lot of bathroom breaks. Hope you liked it (not the piss breaks, dummy).

So yeah, I’m going to try and keep Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World scouring brief. At least briefer. The plot’s a lot more direct. We have only two leads backed by a f*cking Barnum-like cast of supporters. We have a puppy. Yeah, easier to breathe.

And indeed it was, but it’s worth noting straight out of the gate End is a deceptive film. But the deception only creeps in by the third act, so take it easy for the first two. Beyond the first two-thirds however, it gets exponentially difficult to keep chuckling and not navel gaze. It’s kinda weird. But then again look at the title of the movie. Chances are between popcorn bites it may occur to you that this flick may not end well. Maybe.

The outset of the film plays out like a satirical SNL skit. Lots of left-of-center gags spitting into the face of Earth’s impending, premature end. Not terribly surprising how blasé humanity is about armageddon. What does that say? It says absurd. It also says idful, crazy and petulant. In Dodge’s circle, it’s all like having a substitute teacher with a VCR at the ready. It’s a circus, and the passive ring leader is Dodge, totally in tune the dire circumstances and totally disconnected all wrapped up in his being all at sea with no crew.

And that’s what holds End together despite all the silliness and pithy meditations on mortality: Dodge the average schlub. I mean, after Bill Murray Carell is master as hangdog. Carrell fans know the guy to be very skilled at being funny, and thankfully End is a bittersweet, almost black comedy and the ideal vehicle for Steve to ham it up. He doesn’t. He doesn’t do anything. He’s almost totally reactive. Carrell is known to underplay his roles. In End he under underplays Dodge, so lowly he appears. The only serious moment in Dodge’s work-a-day until the end of the world is when he chews out his friendly housekeeper who’s aloof to impending disaster. If only Dodge had that lust for life.

This ain’t to say Carell isn’t his usually amusing self. It’s funny to watch him react to all the predicaments dealt him, mostly drenched in gloom unlike the rest of humanity. Especially not Knightley’s Penny, who’s a chatterbox. Opinionated, assertive, everything Dodge is not and of course gabby gabby gabby (borderline annoying with her introduction). Admittedly, I’m really not familiar with Knightley’s work. Her acting style eluded me. Full truth be told, I got her confused with Kate Beckensdale during the early Underworld installments (surprised they got to chapter two after the first), and I’ve never seen any installments of the Pirates Of The Caribbean flicks. Such a qualified critic I am.

But I found Knightley’s performance as daffy Penny delightful. Of course her nervous demeanor results in non sequitirs a-plenty, and really good act to serve as Dodge’s foil. There’s an easy chemistry there, which makes sense not just because the End Times are here and desperate people band together for desperate reasons, like some sort of codependent Stockholm Syndrome (is that redundant?). But Dodge and Penny’s coupling is due to being victims of circumstance (not just the End Times and blah blah blah). Both her and Dodge have been abandoned, so they have congress in alienation, and so begins some Hunter S Thompson strange road trip in search of truth and fun. Or at least not desperation.

Yeah, so End isn’t quite black comedy. It does have generally funny scenes in the first act, especially Diane and Warren’s “going away party” (hey, we got ourselves Rob Corrdry here, so there’s that. And Patton Oswalt is creeping around somewhere), but as we follow Dodge and Penny into the wild in an end of Mad Max kind of way (but with records) we get darker and darker. Like Chevy Chase responded to his boss in Fletch: “How dark?” “Charcoal.” It’s not that bad, but End does take a gradual left turn over the course of the next two acts. The problem here is that the movie gets less funny as the story progresses (kinda hard not to considering the circumstances) and it gets hard to tell if this is on purpose. I mean, look at the film’s title for pity’s sake. It’s not like when John Wayne got to walk away with Grace Kelly. End eventually devolves into existential crisis, and maybe that’s the point. Alluding to my usual blasé snark dappling part one of the rant, we’re all gonna go someday, someway (with apologies to Marshall Crenshaw. He played Buddy Holly in La Bamba. There ya go). End is clever and tight enough to examine literally life, love and leaving. What started out as funny grows less funny but sweeter as the days count down. The whole tenor of End doomed it to lousy returns and the dreaded “quirky” tag all slightly left-of-center movies get these day. It’s a shade above (gasp) indie. Nevertheless, all of End is engaging in a weird way understanding the complete destruction of life and love is leaving.

I know I kept this all deliberately vague. Shut up. My f*cking take-apart of I’m Not There was vague. End‘s summary was like the back page of Highlights For Children. You really just gotta see End to get it. Or at least try to get something. I got quite a bit, but like Boys Don’t Cry or American History X I wouldn’t want to watch End again. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but—

…”This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test…”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. It’s an interesting, sometimes sweet, sometimes romantic, sometimes harrowing flick. The slow descent works, just too well. And don’t expect a Hollywood ending. I’m surprised that Hollywood went for the ending. Now where are those old records?

Stray Observations (quite a few; this was a film of moments, fleeting moments)

  • Nancy Walls! Makes sense.
  • “We’re f*cked, Bob!” Finally, honesty in mass media broadcasting. So what’s up with the weather then?
  • I wonder if the director read Richard Matheson’s short story “The Last Day” and giggled.
  • “He’s gonna die with everyone else!” Rob Corrdry makes for a lousy life coach. Surprise.
  • “I wanna do heroin to Radiohead.” Of course.
  • A lot of interesting visuals and framing at work here.
  • Dodge. Not really that subtle, is it?
  • MISFITS. I get it.
  • “No.”
  • “You have a lot guns and a lot of potato chips.” Best line in the whole movie, and a hell of a Saturday night.
  • “That’s a good window.”
  • For some inexplicable reason I loved Kiera’s shoes.
  • Admit it, you’ve thumbed through your old yearbooks on a quest of, “Whatever happened to…?”
  • I found the harmonica lesson on the beach scene terribly beautiful.

Next Installment…

Bella Swan is Joan Jett and Coraline Jones is Cherie Currie as one half of The Runaways, managed by music impresario General Zod as Kim Fowley.

The hell?

RIORI Volume 3, Installment 12: Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” (2011)

Young Adult

The Players…

Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser, with Colette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry and Mary Beth Hurt.

The Story…

Popular teen novelist Mavis Gary has hit both career and life arrest. She’s going nowhere fast, and despite her (very) modest success she feels like she’s lost something along the way. A happenstance invite back to her hometown from Buddy—her one time high school sweetheart—for his newborn’s christening gets Mavis to thinking. Maybe this is a sign, a way out of her rut. She could connect with old ties, flaunt her (admittedly dimming) star power, visit mom and dad. Maybe even try to ruin Buddy’s happy marriage with a juvenile sense of righteousness to rekindle old flames.

Hey, who says you can’t go home again?

The Rant…

I had two intros in mind before I began this week’s salvo. One personal and one practical. Sentimental against professional. For reasons that later may or may not seem appropriate for this installment, I’m including both. I’ll let you out there smack Howie upside his chrome dome as to picking which suitcase seems the best bet.

First Intro…

“The only thing that truly ages well with time is nostalgia.”

You can use that. It’s one of my favorite chestnuts. Also, as far as I know, it’s mine. It might’ve been F Scott Fitzgerald’s, but since I was as much of a lush as his legend decrees, we’re probably on even footing.

I’ve learned about—and have fallen victim to—the narcissistic trappings of blogging. It’s understood such websites are given over to jillions of people to get all flowery about their pet project and/or get all foamy and pissed about…well, others’ pet project.

Me? My rambling meditations on meh movies have become perilously close to being a soapbox thinly masked as the other side of the curtain. I am not immune to the Internet-blessed deceit of anonymity. Neither are you. Remember that you with 6000 FaceBook “friends” and your Twitter feed in the millions aren’t exempt. We’re all victim to too much exposure paired with precious little self-examination.

Which is why I quoted myself above all meta-like. Let’s face facts. Nostalgia is narcissistic. I mean, for real, isn’t any and all recollections about, say, your formative years in high school both self-centered and probably a lot more golden than you remembered it? Sure it is, but don’t let a little thing like self-delusion get in the way of how things—and you—were much cooler back in the day.

Oh, quit blowing smoke up my ass—by extension, yours also—and try to change the subject. I can smell hipster faux-irony like a fart in a car. Of course things more likely sucked than shined back in your high school days. Thanks to a little Vaseline on the rosy glasses of memory, blurring the truth ever so slightly, we were all hip in high school. Even if you didn’t run in circles with the cool cliques, there were probably enough mutants in your class to hang with—the typical gangs of misfits, nerds and band geeks—to satisfy one’s desperate social needs. It didn’t matter what you were into (sports, cheerleading, music, video games, abusing yourself in the bathroom ‘round about midnight, etc), you had to find some sort of something to identify with, probably gelling your own identity in the process. You’d end up defining yourself by what you liked, what you were a self-proclaimed expert on, what you hated, what you hated in others and what you hated about your meager high school social scene. The last bit usually accompanied with a quite a few peers in tow who were into ripped jeans, David Lynch movies and an unhealthy fixation with albums by the Cure. Hey, like attracts like.

Naturally being a geek, the cooler kids had it in for you and others of your ilk. I know nowadays with the advent of “geek chic” that being quirky does not automatically guarantee finding one’s head pointed in the wrong direction on the toilet. Millennials might either cringe or outright laugh in disbelief at the notion that the kid with the impeccable GPA who sports an Arcade Fire tee from Hot Topic and has a customized Google Glass with hacked holographic tech would be a target for social lynching. When I was in high school back in the Stone Age 90s, I caught hell merely for my extensive, eclectic music collection, and a good portion of it in classic vinyl dinosaurs. That and being both a Rush and Depeche Mode fan. Black celebration indeed.

Those popular jocks and cheerleaders ruled the school while you and your low-life buddies toiled away in steerage. It’s kind of an open secret nowadays that the kids who were slighted or simply “outsiders” grew up to become generally well-rounded adults. The queen bees and lettermen, anchored to the hierarchy of status and popularity high school provided didn’t fare as well later on. I think this happens due to the nature of cliques; one tends to define oneself within a pecking order. That and mirroring your peers or relying on adoration to prop up self-esteem. Take that away upon graduation, tether cut and you have to “find yourself” in the cold, hard world where you’re just a cog in a grinding machine. It can be jarring, if not crushing to a former “cool kid” to lose that support system. A system that rejected all the loner nerds who fended for themselves, fled home to their basement and their eventual bestselling novel that paid off the student loans for Yale in a mere two years. One could only dream, but look at Bill Gates.

Let me tell you a brief story; an example of stuff like that happening (and it happens all the time). Now the next thing I ramble on about might be looking too deeply into the insidious nature of high school social structure. But since this is my blog and I can play god, I’ll warp the following observations just enough to validate my little sociological analysis here. So as they say, the following story is true, except for the crap I made up.

During my freshman year at Syracuse University, the first semester was more or less and even balance between “finding myself” and just doing my usual thing. Being a nerdy guy in high school—possessing all the benefits that entails—I got on fine at college. I think I actually did better there socially since I was accustomed to hanging with a small group of friends as odd as I. Not to mention my bando buddies, who were like family since we shared a common interest in music. I didn’t have much understanding of a herd mentality, not like I had much say in it. Whatever it was, I fared okay within the social circles at college. It probably helped that I was also a bando again at ol’ SU, which became my new surrogate family.

Fall break came, and my then girlfriend and me went back to my hometown for a little R&R and a chance to do laundry for free. As a lark we went to a football game at my old alma mater that Friday. We sat near the band (naturally) and sure enough, a few of my bando buddies who graduated with me showed up and there were handshakes all around. I introduced my girl and got the kind of silent approval that only guys can detect. From the guys who always knew I wasn’t gay, despite the sh*t I was force-fed by the joker types, they were friendly with her. We naturally asked each other how we were doing. Some of us told how college was treating us. Others who didn’t seek higher education told us about their jobs. One guy was in the Air Force, a mechanic who worked on fighter jets—very cool. It was kinda like a night out drinking, but since we were all too young, Jolt Cola had to do (remember that sh*t? The proto Red Bull. We drank it like blood back in high school. Blech).

It was no big thing. Just “Hey, how’s it goin’?” Not to sound snide (for once), but in only mere months, we had given up on high school; forgotten most of the bullsh*t we endured because now we were too preoccupied with our collegiate/workforce lifestyles. My girlfriend pointed out how much smaller high school football games were compared to the ones at SU. She was in the marching band, too, and us musicians were privileged to end zone seats every game to toot and scream at the players almost every Saturday. My companions agreed—those attending college and also got to see such games on the gridiron—and we laughed like this was years ago, not months. Us, we seasoned weirdoes.

Did I mention this was the first game of the season? High school football’s kind of a big deal in my little burg. It was virtually compulsory for the whole damned town to turn out for the Friday night lights. They rolled up the sidewalks and off to the stadium, lemming-like, the good citizens went. I guess I can’t be too snarky, since I made a bee line also that night. But it was to meet old friends! And share college stories! And show off my new girlfriend with the perky boobs and titian hair thereby proving I could nab a babe despite my Depeche Mode collection (Songs Of Faith And Devotion is a terribly underrated album, BTW)!

So anyway, first game of the season. It wasn’t just me, my well-endowed girlfriend (she had a nice personality, too. I think) and my loner bando buddies who turned out that night. Quite a few former members of the William Allen Senior High marching band showed up too, and not all of them were social outcasts. In fact, most weren’t; band was just another extracurricular feather in their hat of a CV. A clutch of them was “popular kids,” and they made their presence known as free as we pleased.

Let’s not go there. Despite the fact that college was treating me well, and the mid-90s was the dawn of when being awkward was approaching a cachet of hipness, I bore no animosity to these people who alienated and ostracized me so. I had a modicum of self-esteem now, and high school was light-years behind me ever since August. In fact, what nabbed my attention about these folks wasn’t even nabbed by me.

There came a squealing, not unlike the mewling one would hear on the killing floor at the Hatfield factory. My girlfriend elbowed me and pointed. I craned my head around and followed her finger. A trio of girls was screeching and practically collided with one another on the gravel track that circled the perimeter of the football field. I recognized them immediately. You know the kind I’m about to describe—as if I haven’t already—perfect hair, latest fashions, all zero pores and high cheekbones. These were the type of females that tickled my fancy for four years while down in the trenches. What I saw then was less of a get-together like me and my old pals were having and more like the reception the troops received coming home after their second tour in The ‘Nam. There was shrill screaming; crashing embraces and all three linking up to go take a walk down the track. Together. They didn’t even say hi to their fellow, former bandos. But they did speak in large, heady tones usually reserved for the rallies at Nuremburg to one another, as if hoping the others would notice. My girl and I did, but not for my assumed reasons.

My girlfriend asked me, “You know them?”

I shook my head. “…Not really.”

She said, “Y’know, I saw some girls like that when I went back home that weekend for a game. It was like they couldn’t wait to get back to see high school again, right? Some people never grow up.”

True. It wasn’t a disparaging comment, not really. But in my late adolescent mind it got me to thinking, maybe a bit too much (surprise!). Maybe all those “cool” kids were only cool in our geeky minds because how the rest of the rabble viewed them. Such adoration might have fed into a fragile ego/hive-mind that only existed based on others’ perceptions, and therefore appearances must be maintained. Maybe, or just some of those cool kids had really great character and magnetism and confidence we all admired, and didn’t have to resort to some pecking order to reaffirm who the real cock of the walk was. Admit it: a good portion of those popular kids were popular for a reason; they had winning personalities and probably were quite friendly to you in the hall. Truth be told, I knew a few darlings like that. You might have, too.

However, for the sake of my argument, there were a handful of those who were once at the top of the food chain that just didn’t cope well outside the security provided by the high school social circle, and they were likely suspects in the whole high school shunning game. I comment on this because I heard it through the ever-reliable high school bando grapevine—we have a communications system rivaling that of the CIA—that one of those above girls wasn’t doing too well in her school, cut off from her hometown and more or less being on her own for the first time. Another was failing out—not even halfway through the first semester. The third…well, rumor had it that she may or may not have found herself in “the family way,” a term so trite it fits. That’s what I heard. If any or all of those stories were true, little wonder why they fell on each other, reuniting at the classic high school weekend social event: the glorious football game to recapture former glories, strut and preen maybe one last time and be reassured that they were the envy of all the underclassmen. Maybe. Then again, I did say I was probably looking too deeply.

Okay. So now let’s readjust our seat belts and allow RIORI to shuffle its way back from the black corridor of alienation and denial that was high school. Shall we? Also, if you were one o’ dem popular jock/cheerleader types back in the day? I don’t care. We all got the same issues now, regardless of perceived status. And those issues only vary in the context of how it all gets paid in the end.

Second Intro…

There’s this phenomenon I’ve noticed in the past few years—okay, over the past quarter-f*cking-century—that when an esteemed, deserving actor finally wins an Oscar, the quality of their ensuing acting roles precipitously plummets. Here’s an example: Al Pacino. For years he languished in Oscar limbo, never getting the Academy’s credit for a job well done. Not that that really matters. But when Pacino eventually won his apology Oscar for his performance in Scent Of A Woman his following projects followed the laws of diminishing returns. I mean, the last truly decent role Al had was in Donnie Brasco and that was back in 1996. ’96. Almost 20 years ago. With his CV? WTF?

By the way, the whole “apology Oscar” thing? You might be hip to what I’m talking about. It’s the deal when a praiseworthy Hollywood type (an actor, director, best boy, etc) after years of being snubbed by the Academy finally gets their due, even though the recognition should’ve came years earlier, most often for far superior projects. Pacino’s win was an apology; he should’ve gotten his statue back for The Godfather, pt. 2. Or for Dog Day Afternoon. Or for Serpico. Or even for …And Justice For All, for f*ck’s sake.

Nope. Back in 1992? Hoo-ha! Jeez.

Other good examples of apology Oscars are for Denzel Washington, Training Day instead of Malcolm X. Paul Newman; The Color Of Money rather than, say, The Verdict. Even director Martin Scorsese for The Departed (a goddam remake, by the way) instead of GoodFellas or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or—

You get it.

I’d like to think that when an actor gets their pat on the head, one of two things happen with their career (perhaps both things). First, now that they have some laurels to sit on, they can ford their own path. Pick roles for the fun of it, now having critical legitimacy on their résumé, and not give a sh*t what the Academy may think. I’d also like to believe that’s the route Robert DeNiro took. For decades, he made a name for himself being a heavy, dynamic actor, more so than not for playing characters that oozed cinematic gravitas being hard, tough, world weary (think Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta). He paid his dues. He earned respect and critical acclaim. He got his statues and as he got older, he decided to f*ck around with Ben Stiller and Bradley Cooper. Nothing wrong with that (I only give Bob a pass because, for all his lame comedic roles, he’s still entertaining). I mean, c’mon, after playing young Vito Corleone and Al Capone, you need a few fart jokes. Don’t we all?

The second route is more insidious. It involves complacency. There are few things sadder than a talented person squandering their talents. It’s like when a drunken, desperate F Scott Fitzgerald resorted to writing screenplays on spec, or what happened to a young Edward Furlong and his promising acting career. By either self-destruction or just failing to give a sh*t anymore (e.g.: chasing the paycheck), some really good actors fail to keep replacing their spent filters and start taking roles that won’t necessarily hurt their career, but definitely will make folks question their reputation and might get themselves booted from the artistic role call.

I think Pacino is in that camp, and I don’t care how old he’s gotten. Yeah, yeah. There was an undeniable fire in his roles back in the 70s, but it didn’t really burn out as he got older. Like with Donnie Brasco, the heat was there, but couched in a wiser, older guy who was well acquainted with the persona of, well, an older wiseguy. He played that role on its ear in Brasco, and his signature tension was intact.

Then, The Devil’s Advocate, where he was just spewing fire (almost literally) and it just went downhill from there. Precipitously.

When you’re an actor playing a parody of yourself, vamping on your signature whatever—shove—off that artistic role call. There’s a fine line between giving the audience what they want and giving the audience what they expect. Pacino’s career in the past twenty years has not been about him portraying fiery characters. It’s been about Al playing Al.

I’m of the concern that Charlize Theron might be headed down that path. I’ve been following her career for years, not just because she’s hot. Well, she was a model, after all. I’m not made of stone (beer and sandwiches maybe, but not stone). She got my attention—as well as the Academy’s—for her performance as convicted serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster, which she got an Oscar for in 2003.

(An aside: for the past decade, if you’re an actor and want to get an Oscar nod—maybe even a win—do a biopic. It worked for Adrien Brody in The Pianist, Jaime Foxx for Ray, Philip S Hoffman for Capote, Forest Whitaker for The Last King Of Scotland, Sean Penn for Milk, Colin Firth for The King’s Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory Of Everything. And those are just the guys that won, not including nominees, nor the best supporting roles.

(Let’s beat this to death; now the ladies: Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich, Nicole Kidman for The Hours, Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line, Helen Mirren for The Queen, Marion Cottiliard for La Vie En Rose, Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady…and Charlize Theron for Monster. Again, ignoring the supporting actresses and nominees.

(Hm. It could be the rampant trend of biopics overall, but still. You want a statue? Take this career advice from yours truly. Now start returning my calls. Especially you Charlize.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, Theron’s movies.

Right, so Theron commanded my attention with Monster, and not just for her hideous make-up job. Her portrayal of Wuornos was downright scary. Maybe horrifying is a better word. If an actress’, or any thespian’s performance can generate an emotional response strong enough to warrant “horrifying” as the best possible way to describe an audience’s reaction, then said actress did their job. Well. Damn well in Theron’s case. So she got the critical acclaim, the trophy and all that it entails. Like a starring role in Aeon Flux later on. A film based on the video game adaptation of a cartoon adaptation of a comic book.

I’m hoping her choice was done for fun. I’m hoping.

I’m not saying at all that Theron’s acting career since Monster has resembled all-you-can-eat night at the local Sizzler. But it has shown signs fraying at the edges. Hancock, Snow White And The Huntsman, Prometheus—still not sure as to the point of her even being in that movie, except maybe to f*ck Idris Elba—and especially A Million Ways To Die In The Old West send up red flares. Again, I’m hoping all that was in fun. But it gets a fanboy like me to wondering.

So now we have Young Adult. It’s a small film. We’re not exactly in indie territory here—which I have learned to avoid, since it automatically invites the usual Standard chokehold—but smaller films often permit big deal, Academy-accolades-be-damned kind of stars to stretch out a bit. Loosen up. Play “out of character” and have some fun without being overtly fun-seeking. Let’s face it, as an actor it’s a lot easier to “be yourself” without having Big Cinema looking down your gullet for growths when being involved in a “small” picture as opposed to those bug budget travesties listed above (f*ckin’ Prometheus. Gah).

A good example of a “little film”—not necessarily indie—that let a big name actor shine without their usual bombast, let alone have popular opinion further sully their questionable career route—is Al Pacino’s own directorial effort, Chinese Coffee (which I may lacerate in the future) starring Col Frank Slade and the late Jerry “Det Lenny Briscoe” Orbach. It was based on a stage play, very simple, and the film version let Pacino shine as an actor, with all his cinematic gravitas intact if not reaffirmed. It was pretty well directed too, for a neophyte.

His small film—which amazingly slipped under the radar in regards to an actor of his (once unflappable) caliber—was…well, since I implied I might tear it to shreds later on, I’ll let any criticism hang in the air. But Chinese Coffee serves as an example of how a little film can keep the consumerist specter of Hollywood off one’s acting career back. Even if you’re Al Pacino.

Although small, it’s kinda hard to dub such a movie “indie” in the honest sense when the director is a big deal in a film world of big deals. When I dub a film indie, it’s not necessary for it to be obscure to earn that label. When you think about it, Birdman was an indie film and it walked away with the Best Picture Oscar, so let me split hairs, all right? My blog, my rules.

So here comes the inevitable question: which Charlize would surface with Young Adult? Would it be the driven and affecting actress a la Monster or North Country? Or would some hot chick out of Aeon Flux or, well, Prometheus, infect us?

Let’s find out. My scalpel’s quite sharp, I assure you…

The life of a novelist can be considered very glamorous. Making a living being creative, pursuing your muse. Hobnobbing with the intellectual elite. Critical praise. Sometimes your work can earn you a beautiful home, a nice ride and never having to want for anything except the idea for the next big book.

Or it can be a work-a-day slog like it is for young adult hack Mavis Gary (Theron).

She lives in a serviceable, dark and cramped apartment. She drives a road-worn, dinky Mini Cooper. Her desk is a mish-mash of not the Great American Novel in progress, but operator’s manuals dictating how Mavis should churn out the next Waverly Prep teen reader installment—a series coming to an end, no less. The only socializing she has is either with her yappy, little dog or whomever she happens upon on her becoming all too frequent nights out at the bar. To top all of this glamour off, Mavis is a ghostwriter and is never openly given credit for her labors. Mavis tells herself real life isn’t like this.

So when a random e-mail shows up in her inbox inviting her back to her old hometown, she leaps at the chance to get out of her rut. Well, not exactly leaps. “Crawl” is a more apt term. Mavis is initially confused by the invitation. It’s from her old high school sweetheart Buddy (Wilson), wanting Mavis to come back to Mercury, MN for his newborn’s christening. To say this came out of the blue is an understatement, but once it all sinks in, Mavis wastes no time to get the hell out of Dodge. At least back in Mercury her life was uncluttered. She was the queen bee, had lots of friends. Of course this was back in high school, like 20 years ago. No matter. Mavis’ll give the local yokels the what-for about being a big deal author from the big town is all about.

Flaunting her cosmopolitan fame doesn’t quite pan out as well as she thought back in old backwater Mercury. Nothing really changed, and the townsfolk like it that way. So when the prodigal daughter who “made good” comes back home, there’s really not much of a reception waiting. So much for that line of attack.

Mavis does find one soul who remembers her from back in the days of the high school hallways. On one of her bar crawls, she stumbles into Matt (Oswalt), a geeky guy from Mercury High who, although wasn’t exactly friends with Mavis, kept abreast of her career. Y’know, local celebrity and all that. Well, it’s amazing what a few dozen shots can do for one’s self-esteem and confidence level. Approaching last call, a drunken Mavis drags Matt outside to drop some science on him. Sure there’s this party at Buddy’s, but secretly she’s back in town to seduce her old beau away from his tranquil life of domestic bliss. Back in the day, they were the it-couple, and since Mavis’ current life is falling into pieces, a fling with the past might just be the tonic she needs.

Of course, Matt finds this scheme f*cking stupid. Sure, life back in Mercury High might’ve been good to Mavis, but Matt was a victim of bullies and abuse, and knows all too well of its cold, hard life lessons. But his words of caution go unheeded by Mavis, hell bent on recapturing old glories. Mavis bounds ahead, rewriting the Waverly Prep bible. After all, the life of a hack ex-prom queen isn’t very glamorous, but maybe drawing from past, shiny experiences, Mavis can do an about-face with the present.

Maybe not…

I liked this one.

I know I’m blowing my cover by saying this outright. I mean, why bother taking apart Young Adult any further? Because it demands it. There is too much going on in this movie despite the simple plot to just lump it into the camp of, “Uh. It wuz good. Charlize purty. Patton made much giggles. Booze.” It also tickled me for being not only a stinging character study, but also a nostalgia film. Remember what I said in the intro? No, the other one.

Yeah, yeah. Gen X. Blah, blah. I love the NES and John Hughes movies. Shut up. Remember back in The To-Do List installment—the other 90s nostalgia-fest tackled here—where Maggie Carey’s semi-autobiographical movie was awash in the day-glo colors of 1993? That pastiche was a sunny, kinda innocent take on that zeitgeist which was both a parody and love letter to those carefree days pre-World Wide Web. Sure it was fun, but I said that List, with all its ’93 fashions and music and slang had pigeonholed audiences squarely aimed towards that movie. Like other movies of that generational ilk (e.g.: The Big Chill, Sixteen Candles, Wall Street, The Best Years Of Our Lives, etc), List had a very narrow audience in mind. I’d say a good sixty percent of moviegoers were lost on all its gags and pop cultural references. You had to be going to high school in the age of grunge to appreciate List.

Young doesn’t play it that way. Kurt Cobain offing himself needn’t be the end of all civilization for you to appreciate this week’s offering. That and unlike List, Young has a vibe about it one could call “malaise.” It’s a grey film; almost dark comedy, and makes us cringe at our alleged heroine’s motives because we all know her hair-brained schemes, delusions and drinking is going to lead to wreck and ruin. All of it by her own hand to boot.

Also unlike List, Young takes place in 2011, not 1993. Sure, Mavis’ mind might be stuck in the past, and there are plenty of touches in the movie to remind audiences where Mavis’ motivation lies. However these touches are used as melancholy, as we know we can’t go back again—what’s done is done—and you can truly never “recapture your glory days.”

Hold on. It’s not all desperation and depression in Young. Quite the opposite, really. There is reluctant buoyancy to the plot, a warped feeling of optimism that keeps the movie on the sunny side. Even if it’s sunlight flickering through a torn curtain.

Right, so Young is a character study. In this case we have Mavis. Everyone knows or knew someone like Mavis. They’re a former cool kid in high school, once always basking in the adoration of others, which ultimately proves to be their undoing. For four years in their formative days they developed a sense of personal value based on others’ perceptions. Take that away, and, well…one can get a tad unglued.

Theron’s Mavis has become quite unglued. She’s boozy, depressed and rather uncomfortable in her own skin. Theron’s portrayal is stiff throughout the movie, as if she’s wearing a mask and/or holding up a shield. Mavis is also rather fragile, like coming back home might shatter her unless she maintains this false front of success and confidence. It’s forged—resigned—from her bad faith decision to live up to an teenage, early 90s vision of herself. You kinda get the feeling that a big part of accepting Buddy’s invitation—well, that and plotting to undo his marriage—gave Mavis the excuse to head back home and revel in what she “escaped” from, re-bolstering that feeling of control she once had in high school. Then again, she could simply be a stuck-up bitch. Sometimes I delve too deeply.

Theron’s good at quiet desperation. However, it’s Oswalt who nails the “nerd angst” most of else felt and wrung their hands over back in high school. Granted for Oswalt, a self-confessed comic book geek, it’s not much of a stretch. With his self-effacing, schlumpy manner, Oswalt’s Matt quietly walks away with the movie. Now it’s understood that Young’s cast is built upon aging high school stereotypes, but none of them are two-dimensional, even Wilson’s former BMOC-turned-family man. Matt’s adult nerd schtick is not played out as sorry, awkward or any of the typical traits one would immediately identify as dorky. No. In spite of Matt being a loser townie—someone who didn’t “escape” Mercury like Mavis did—he possesses more coolness and is far more grounded than she is, what with all her faux urbane sophistication. Matt keeps popping Mavis’ delusions living inside her head, like some malign Jiminy Cricket. It’s really hard to not identify with, let alone enjoy Matt, and thank God he’s the only one that’s able to puncture Mavis’ self-inflated, broken ego. His drinking practices are more interesting, too. Trust me, I know. And salt before tequila is for softies who like Smirnoff Ice. Or Jolt.

There are also a great deal of details shrouding and shadowing Mavis’ world in Mercury. I know I say, “Damn, there’s lotsa details in this here character study” too damned much with movies like this. This time I ain’t talking about sheets of atmosphere enhancers like a good soundtrack and other pop culture touchstones. Okay, not just that. Here with Young, we’re talking quality over quantity unlike The To-Do List. Mavis’ predicament is brilliantly illustrated during the opening credits. Playing the same high school mixtape (tape!) over and over again. And playing the same Teenage Fanclub song, she and Buddy’s song from back in the day (and what screams alt-rock 90s like Teenage Fanclub?) over and over again. Hell, even the choice of song—”The Concept” from 1991s Bandwagonesque. Right, a little obvious—is spot on. The bar scene where Mavis first meets Matt has the Replacements’ “Achin’ To Be” playing softly in the background, and the pair proceeds to get sh*tfaced. Songs are triggers for memories. In Young, the tunes are applied as a tapestry for Mavis’ struggles, both past and…imagined past.

In addition to the music, there are oodles—subtle oodles—of nods to the 90s, Mavis’ halcyon days. The crisp, new fern bar; such places all the rage when the newest episode of Seinfeld was on everyone’s lips. Stupid hard cider drinks, the kind a delicate, unsophisticated teen palate could tolerate before too much resulted in the dry heaves…after much wet heaves. Even Matt’s collection of toys—er, “collectable figurines”—and his dingy Death To The Pixies tee, all of it buffets Mavis in her mission, resulting in an ever increasing tension of desperation. It eventually invites the question: Is Mavis descending into a character from one of her books? Whatever, but the whole scenario warns of the dangers of living vicariously, especially if it’s through your past self.

A final point about the tapestry. This could be the first time in her career that Theron’s beauty slips into parody. The scenes of her primping, choosing clothes for her “big dates,” tweaking her hair (and I mean “tweaking,” not fixing. Well, maybe “fixing” works, too. I’m not gonna spoil it; you’ll just have to see it) and other pathetic, vainglorious attempts to recapture radiance that’s long since blurred due to drinking and stress grinding cigarettes into Theron’s well-known, possibly self-aware public image. I think the woman is smart enough to know that the “just another pretty face” tag isn’t unfounded, and not just in the face of her Oscar-winning turn in Monster. The whole passive “turnabout as fair play” vibe of Young is as subtle as neon regarding the fallen prom queen template. Mavis’ “upgrades” belie her ever-dwindling returns, and it’s kinda hard to watch at times. However, I again think Theron knew this about approaching her character, as well as regarding her public image. Young provided the opportunity to both put the stereotype through a delicious wringer as well as puncture her own over-emphasized red carpet glory. In other words, she acted as Mavis to let the audience “have a laugh on her.” I know I did. Actually, it was more of a wince dotted with groans and snickers.

The only fault I found with Young was that it’s a bit linear and predictable, in that order. The movie might’ve benefited from more twists and turns, particularly employing Oswalt more often, to offset the straight line to Mavis’ impending undoing. Well, it really isn’t an undoing. Yeah, I know I’m flirting dangerously with spoilers here. Just watch the stupid movie and quit yer bitching.

As for the predictability, it’s a minor carp. We all know that nothing good’s going to come of Mavis’ ploy. Director Reitman butters on the pitfalls and failures and obvious calamity that Mavis’ actions will result. It’s only in one of the closing scenes where Matt’s sister Sandra (played earnestly by Colette Wolfe) where one of many possible conclusions could result for Mavis’ drunken fate. Overall, it’s a fun ride getting to the end though, if only it weren’t obvious. Then again, one could make the argument for it being so obvious, therein lays the fun. I dunno. I’m rather torn about the issue. Oh, well.

Young must be the best high school nerd revenge tale ever. It’s the anti-John Hughes movie. However unlike most stories in his vein, there’s no big climax of the dork standing up to the bullying jock, only an awkward, sad breakdown. This is usually how such confrontations pan out in reality anyway if you think about it. It’s no less satisfying though. Granted Mavis comes from a self-appointed, fleeting sense of entitlement, but at the end of the day—all our days—we all gotta get knocked down a peg sometimes. Even the most spoiled brat needs their comeuppance. But we all do, and if we’ve ever walked in those shoes hopefully we walk away with some humility and a lesson learned. Hopefully, but it seldom really happens. Nice to think, though.

Roles offered like Young did are what Theron needs more often. One doesn’t have to be the terse, determined type to score a role that lands an actor’s talent in the butter zone. Namely, high profile doesn’t require high exposure. Theron’s talented, no question there. All she needs to do to retain any street cred is to cut tracks like this one. Trim the fat and steer clear of what potential Prometheus’ might offer, like head scratching and shrugs and a leaving a yen for serial killers. Not that that’s really a bad thing. I guess.

BTW: no, the buxom girl I spoke of in the first intro did not become my wife. My girl’s of average build, and I find her quite pretty, albeit screechy at times. Also, she’s a bigger Depeche Mode fan than I. She thinks Music For The Masses is a more underrated album than Devotion, though. Then again, I prefer Gang Starr’s Daily Operation to both, so I win.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Duh, rent it. Hey, this ain’t a payback tale like Revenge Of The Nerds. It doesn’t have to be, and it’s more gratifying for it. Forget it’s a Gen X nostalgia tale, too. Age knows no obnoxious jock or cheerleader. Unless you were one. Or still are. Then grow the f*ck up and pay the bills.

Stray Observations…

  • “We have lives.” Chew chew chew.
  • I remember cassettes. Mixes. Cheap. Disposable. Fun. Also unreliable. Fragile. Sucked. Not every piece of nostalgia is sweet. Now CD-Rs on the other hand…
  • “You won best hair!”
  • “Yeah, I might be an alcoholic.” “Very funny.” Right. Thanks, “Mom.”
  • Sue me, but any movie that includes the ‘Mats in its soundtrack (even if from their worst album) will always earn some goodie points from me.
  • “How’s your dick?” “Not good!” “Does it work?” Best. Come-on line. Ever.
  • Theron plays buzzed very well. Something tells me The Method might’ve been employed here.
  • “The rest of us changed. You just got lucky.”
  • That was one very f*cked up intervention.
  • “I’m not a weirdo.”
  • Brilliant move with the ranch dressing. If you didn’t get it, you’re hopeless.
  • “Guys like me are born loving women like you.” Best line in the whole damned movie.

Next Installment…

What do the Civil War, Mars and Walt Disney have in common? Uh, not a lot. But don’t tell John Carter that. Especially the thing about Disney.