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The Lens: Jason Reitman is down on romance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2012 - First, note that this essay contains spoilers. Late in Jason Reitman's most recent film, "Young Adult," the principal character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), shows up at the house of a man she knew 20 years ago in high school, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt).

It's been a terrible week so far for Mavis. Her life has started to come apart: She's a heavy drinker, a lonely woman who sleeps with men she hardly knows and clearly doesn't like, and her career as an author of young adult novels is in tatters since the once-popular series she has been ghostwriting, "Waverly Prep" (akin to a fictional version of the once-mega-selling "Sweet Valley High" series), is coming to an end. More, she has writer's block that's keeping her from meeting her deadline for the last book of the dying series.

Mavis has been convinced that what she needs is a reconnection with her one-time high-school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and she's left the big city, Minneapolis, and returned to her native small town, Mercury, Minn., to convince him to leave his wife and new baby and start a life with her. By the time she shows up at Freehauf's house, however, her dream has been dashed: She's just made a humiliating declaration of her love to Buddy, at the naming ceremony for his daughter, in front of his wife and friends (many of whom knew Mavis in her glory days when she reigned at Mercury High School), but Buddy has rejected her.

Now, she wants solace and she wants it from Freehauf. They drink; they kiss; they go to bed.

In many ways, this late scene between Mavis and Freehauf echoes those we've seen in so many romantic comedies. Throughout the film, Freehauf has been the "good friend" to Mavis, her companion on nights when she's lonely, her confidante as she plots her impossible task to take Buddy away from his wife. The film has worked hard to make us like and root for Freehauf: He's disabled, from a vicious beating he took from jocks when he and Mavis were in school together (there's even a hint that Buddy may have been a part of the gang who beat him). The jocks attacked him because they thought he was gay, but he's not. As an adult two decades after high school, he still has a life that's as stuck in the past as Mavis': He lives in his boyhood home, with his sister, and he collects superhero and science-fiction action figures that he modifies into mutants of the originals.

Despite his sad life, he's a funny and engaging character, one who tries very hard to keep Mavis from having her heart broken, once and for all, by Buddy, and it's clear that the filmmakers (Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who also collaborated on the Oscar-winning "Juno" in 2007) intend the audience to want and even expect Mavis and Freehauf to end up together, for Mavis to realize the lunacy of her obsession with the happily married Buddy and to see that the "right guy" for her is the one she's spent far more time with in the film than she has with Buddy.

This is a common element in many romantic comedies: the tension that comes when, as an audience, we watch characters we know belong together avoid the romantic inevitability and spend the film pursuing others until the final scene, and the relief we get when the characters see what we've known all along and we get the final kiss, the swell of music, love conquers all, the end.

It's what drives "When Harry Met Sally," in which Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) dance in and out of each other's lives, dating other people, marrying other people, being friends, becoming estranged - until the final sequence when a solitary Harry, at home alone on New Year's Eve, realizes that, yes, as the audience knows, he and Sally are Meant for Each Other, and he goes running through the streets of New York to the posh party that Sally is just leaving to tell her he loves her, because "when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

It's part of what drives Woody Allen's "Manhattan," in which Allen's character, Isaac, rejects his much younger lover, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), for the neurotic Mary (Diane Keaton) and only comes to see that Tracy is the One for Him at the end, when it's almost too late, and he has to run through the streets of New York to tell her, reaching her at the last possible moment, before she gets on a plane for six months in London. (For some reason, the romantic-comedy genre demands that characters sprint somewhere near the end of the film, to reach their beloved.) As in "When Harry Met Sally," we get the declaration of love and the swell of music, although, admittedly, Allen's ending is a bit more nuanced than convention generally allows; it does, nonetheless, leave us with a sort of triumph of the heart.

It's what drives the Michael Showalter comedy, "The Baxter," in which Showalter's character, Elliot, spends nearly the entire film pursing Elizabeth Banks' Caroline, only coming to see (as we've known all along) that the One for Him is really Michelle Williams' Cecil at the end, after Caroline has left him at the altar and he goes (yes) running through the streets of New York, to reach Cecil At the Last Minute, just as she's about to go off to Cincinnati with her own romantic Wrong Guy, and we get the kiss, the swell of music, the end.

It's what drives, in part, so many films: "Crazy, Stupid, Love," "Midnight in Paris," "13 Going on 30," "Bridget Jones' Diary," "The Wedding Singer," "His Girl Friday," "It Happened One Night," "Bringing Up Baby."

In a way, I suppose, you could say that the dramatic machine of romantic comedies is driven by three D's: desire, denial, delivery. The films create a desire in the audience, they deny what we desire for a long while, and then they deliver what we want.

Decades of romantic comedies have conditioned us to expect "Young Adult" will give what so many others before it have - a reaffirmation that romance exists.

But it doesn't.

The morning after Mavis and Freehauf sleep together, Mavis wakes beside Freehauf, considers him for a moment, dresses and leaves, but not before demeaning Freehauf's sister. Mavis is the same self-centered, unreflective woman she was when we first met her, driving back to Minneapolis convinced she is living her life the right way. There is no final kiss, no swell of music, no romance lives, the end. (I suppose this gives us an alternate three D's: desire, denial, disappointment.)

But by the final credits, audiences shouldn't be surprised that "Young Adult" is the "anti-romantic-comedy" it is and that it doesn't make good on what we may consider the "romantic contract" films often make with their audiences.

For one thing, throughout the film, "Young Adult" makes clear in so many ways that its narrative is not what we may think it is. The series that Mavis has been writing, which centers on the traditional romantic narrative (one she wants to believe in, despite her cynical relationship to the series she writes), is on its way out, for example, replaced by YA novels that have a darker edge, stories populated by vampires instead of prom queens.

Too, by the time Mavis shows up at Freehauf's house for the start of the final sequence, we've already seen other staples of the romantic comedy fail. In the scene that just precedes her arrival at Freehauf's house, in which Mavis made her very public declaration that Buddy and she were soul mates, we get an upside-down version of scenes we've seen so often before, in which the principal character has to risk or even endure humiliation to win his/her love.

We get it in "Notting Hill," when Hugh Grant's William is forced to tell Julia Roberts' Anna that he loves her in the middle of a crowded press conference. We get it in "Bridget Jones' Diary," when a shivering, underdressed Bridget (Renee Zellweger) pleads with Mark D'Arcy on a public street to forgive her for rude comments he's just read in her diary and give her another chance. We get it in another film with Zellweger, "Jerry Maguire," in which the title character (Tom Cruise) pleads with his wife, Dorothy (Zellweger), to take him back, in front of a meeting of angry women who've all been jilted by men. It's one of the basic principles of the genre: The main character must earn the romantic ending, and in each of these cases, and so many more, they do.

But, in "Young Adult," the requisite scene of humiliation ends with the humiliation: Buddy isn't swayed, Mavis does not earn the romance she has paid for.

Beyond what we see in "Young Adult," Reitman has already made clear in his earlier work that he's not going to give us the easy romantic ending we're used to (and perhaps feel we and the main character deserve).

In his 2009 Oscar-nominated "Up in the Air," for example, Reitman again uses one of the most common elements of a romantic comedy to make us desire, and expect, a happy ending, but not give it to us: In the film, the main character, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), has deliberately lived a small, insular life, without attachments. He is a specialist in the "cold kill," a corporate hitman who swoops into companies that are laying off employees and delivers the news of the layoffs to the fired workers as efficiently as any paid assassin. Beyond this, he is also a motivational speaker who tries to convince others that the best way to live is without encumbrances.

At one point, he meets a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems his match. She, too, is not interested in romantic permanence. All is well until Bingham goes, against his will, to his sister's wedding, bringing Alex along as his "plus-one." The wedding and the time with Alex breaks down Bingham's defenses against permanence, and it's when he's at what amounts to the Super Bowl of motivational speaking events in Las Vegas, giving his same spiel about traveling through life lightly weighed, that he realizes he's not that guy anymore. He wants baggage, and he suffers his requisite moment of humiliation when he stops himself in the middle of his speech, in a crowded, ornate theater, runs offstage, and flies to Chicago in a snowstorm because, like Billy Crystal's Harry, "when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

But then, despite the presence of two of the requisite elements for the conventional happy, romantic ending (on top of the public humiliation, we have the mad dash toward the beloved), Reitman doesn't give us what we and Bingham want. Bingham pulls to the curb outside Alex's home, dashes happily up her front walk, rings her bell. She answers the door - but there is no kiss, swell of music, romance lives, the end. She's married. What's more, she has children. She was, in turns out, honest: She didn't want anything with Bingham but whatever the moment gave them. Bingham and we are crushed.

The film, to be fair, is not as dark in its ending as is "Young Adult." While Mavis in Reitman's most recent film is entirely unrepentant and unchanged, Clooney's Bingham does have a conversion: Although he does not get the woman he thinks is his soul mate, while it's too late for him to live the happily encumbered life, the film does offer a kind of redemption. Throughout "Up In the Air," Bingham has had a young protegee, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who had shown promise that she could be even colder when she delivers the news to a fired worker than Bingham has been. But she is young; after a crisis, she gets out of the business of corporate downsizing, and in the end, it's Bingham's unsolicited but enthusiastic recommendation to another company that allows her to find the job that changes the direction of her life for the better. He can't save himself, but he can save her.

Even in "Juno," which is Reitman's most conventionally romantic film, we have convention only to a degree, since it's a kind of backward romance, beginning with the main character pregnant and ending with her in something more akin to an ideal high-school romantic relationship, riding her bicycle to her boyfriend's house where she sits on the front steps and sings a sweet love song with him. (The film's treatment of the married couple who adopt Juno's baby, Vanessa and Mark Loring [Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman], is still more evidence that if you're looking for happy romantic endings in a Jason Reitman film, you're looking in the wrong place: After agreeing to adopt Juno's baby, the couple falls apart and Mark Loring, who, like Mavis in "Young Adult," thinks of high school as the pinnacle of his life, even throws an awkward and very disturbing pass at a hugely pregnant, much-younger-than-he-is Juno.)

As for Reitman's first feature, "Thank You for Smoking," don't even bother looking for romance, as the only relationship the main character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), has in his life is a cynical one in which he sleeps with Katie Holmes' Heather Holloway primarily as a means of influencing the article she's writing about him for a major Washington, D.C., newspaper, and she sleeps with him largely to get him to confide secrets to her for her article. (Reitman even eschews the primary romantic thread of Christopher Buckley's novel, which served as the basis for his film; in the book, which has the same name, Naylor has a more conventional relationship with a lobbyist for the alcohol industry. The lobbyist appears in the film - Maria Bello's Polly - but Reitman ignores the novel's romance between the two.)

Reitman's latest, "Young Adult," has had mixed reviews. New York Times critic A.O. Scott praised its "brilliant, brave and breathtakingly cynical heart," but Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, gave it just two and a half stars out of four and griped that the script needed another draft or two before it would work. Writing in Time, Richard Corliss said the film alternated between "amusing and annoying." It even suffered a kind of critical slight: In its annual roundup of critical response to the 50 biggest films of the year, Entertainment Weekly didn't even bother to list Reitman's film.

At the same time, the members of the Writers Guild of America nominated it as one of the five best original screenplays of the year, meaning it stands a good chance of an Oscar nomination in the same category. In an even more significant measure, it has done poorly at the box office since its release in mid-December. Through Jan. 1, it had grossed only $12 million in the U.S., compared with almost $70 million by the critically panned "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," which opened the same day "Young Adult" went into wide release. The latter film gives audiences exactly what they expect, while "Young Adult" does not. (Over a comparable stretch, "Juno" took in more than twice as much as "Young Adult" has thus far and "Up In the Air" just slightly under four times as much.)

Part of the reason many critics seem not to appreciate "Young Adult" and audiences have not embraced it as they did Reitman's two films that immediately preceded it, I'm convinced, lies in the way "Young Adult" has been promoted. The trailers, which all but ignore the darker elements of the story, make it seem to be a comedy, but, although is has comedic elements, it's not a comedy. Part of the reason, too, is that it's much more pessimistic than his earlier films, even as they have broken with our expectations of how film narrative should go.

But if you'd been paying attention to Reitman's earlier work, with his increasing progression away from conventional film romance, you'd be prepared for the even greater step away from pat happy endings that "Young Adult" represents; you'd know, despite the spritely, funny trailers, that Reitman wouldn't give us what film after film after film has given us and continues to give us.

In the end, that is a good thing.

Do we really need more film romance that amounts to little more than cinematic cotton candy - sweet at first taste but then gone quickly as it dissolves?

In a word, no.

While "Young Adult," and the resolution to "Up in the Air" before it, may not be as easily palatable as the more pleasant and "life-affirming" romances that pour more often into U.S. multiplexes, while we may leave the theater after a Reitman "comedy" feeling as if our belief in love and happy endings as absolutes has been shaken, that is a good thing. Often the point of the best art is to make us stop short, to show us the world in ways we don't expect, to make us feel even a bit disoriented.

I, for one, hope that Reitman keeps pushing his films more and more to the "dark side." After all, cotton candy gets tiring pretty quickly.

About the Lens

The Lens is a collaboration between Cinema St. Louis and the St. Louis Beacon that provides a forum for thoughtful articles (some long, many short) that discuss movies and the film industry.

The Lens had a regular run for some time and is being revived as an occasional feature.