I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jason Reitman, Movie Maverick

“I don’t really know what kind of a girl I am,” the title character reluctantly admits in Jason Reitman’s Juno. Like her, all of the director’s other protagonists are not as sure of themselves as they would like to appear. Just as under the laugh track of Reitman’s movies lie serious social themes, beneath the seemingly secure, brashly self-confident shell his characters build lie fundamentally flawed, lost, damaged, or insecure human beings. Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and Young Adult (2011) all center on very complex, realistic, deglamorized characters that find themselves in less than ideal situations. The filmmaker’s refusal to shy away from difficult characters, unconventional subject matter and ambiguity is one of the reasons he is a maverick filmmaker. Reitman’s movies are deeply personal, experimental in both content and form, blending light humor with dark undertones of social satire, and perfectly capture the nation’s anxieties and culture of resilience. Most of all, they are the movies he wants to make. While his father, Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters (1984), Stripes (1981), and Meatballs (1979) fame, “wants to take your favorite song and play it better than you’ve ever heard,” Jason “want[s] to take a song you hate and play it so well that you’ll learn to like it” (Jacobson 20).

The title of Reitman’s first movie, based on Christopher Buckley’s sly comic novel, comes from the “Thank you for not smoking signs” that started appearing in the late 1970s, “a guilt mongering New-Ageism more oppressive than the Puritan imperative ‘No Smoking’” (Doherty 55).  From the first scenes of his first feature length film, we are plunged into the highly stylized, polished landscape Reitman has created. As Tex Williams’ 1947 hit “Smoke That Cigarette” (“Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate/ That you hates to make him wait/ But you just got to have/ another cigarette”) confidently introduces us to the writer/director, a colorful collage of tobacco packs, logos, and crests “conjure the glorious, pre-Surgeon General warning days when cigarettes were not part of being cool, just part of the scenery” (Doherty 54). As a part-time mashup DJ and full-time music fanatic, Reitman understands how important a song can be in setting the mood he is trying to convey. His first aural choice for the elaborate title sequence was Steve Winwood’s “I'm a Man,” which paralleled the bulletproof swagger of the movie’s brash tobacco lobbyist, but in the end he chose a tune that said more than the movie already does.

After the colorful opening credits unfold, we land in a television studio where we meet Nick Naylor, vice president of the Academy of Tobacco Studies and chief spokesman for their main lobby in Washington. Other guests on the Joan show, introduced with lower thirds, include neo-Puritan Sen. Finistirre’s top aide, and “cancer boy,” a young man who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The audience members cheer for them, while a slow motion shot and freeze frame capture their reaction to Naylor, spit et al. “Few people know what it is to be truly despised,” Naylor begins in Reitman’s characteristic, highly subjective voiceover narration. “Can you blame them? I make a living fronting an organization that kills 1,200 human beings a day.” An animated sequence provides visual representation: “we’re talking two jumbo jet planeloads of men, women, and children.” Nick Naylor, “the face of cigarettes, the Colonel Sanders of nicotine,” is responsible for more deaths than Attila and Genghis combined. A speedily edited sequence takes us through the inner workings of the tobacco industry: the corporate executives; the scientists who study the relation between cigarettes and lung cancer with no conclusive evidence; the “sharks,” Ivy League lawyers that would fit a John Grisham novel—“you know, without all the espionage”; and, most importantly, spin control, where Naylor comes in. “I don’t have an MD or a law degree,” he explains. “I have a Bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names. You know that guy who can pick up any girl? I’m him. On crack.” By the first commercial break on Joan, the audience is all smiles and claps directed his way. Cinematic flourishes such as voiceover, graphics, freeze frames, supers, icons, and subtitles, which would normally act as distancing devices, in Reitman’s hands have the unusual ability to bring us closer to, rather than move us farther away from the main character.

As Naylor, Aaron Eckhart has “a shark’s grin and the boyish smarm of a man who’s spent his life getting away with murder” (Douthat 54). As much as the character insists his job is just another way to “pay the mortgage”—a recurrent refrain through Thank You for Smoking, Naylor plays the game because he’s good at it and plays it for Big Tobacco because they test his skills. “Michael Jordan plays ball, Charles Manson kills people, I talk. Everyone has a talent.” He admits to his son that his livelihood “requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people.” Naylor’s sunny outlook, painted over dark Machiavelianism, makes for a total moral disconnect, but “one that seems less a matter of calculation than temperament: he represents the lobbyist as supreme Darwinian adaptation to the American political system” (Cooper 20). For lunch, Nick regularly meets the spokespeople for the alcohol and firearms industries—the “MOD Squad,” or merchants of death—where they argue over whose product kills more people, and therefore is harder to represent. Whereas most of the film is brightly lit and shot in the warm browns, tans, yellows, and reds of tobacco, the scenes in the restaurant, as well as the country club where the Captain seems to reside, are very dark. The long dolly shot that follows Nick as he enters the country club, reminiscent of the famous Goodfellas track, reminds us we are entering a shadowy, unknown, dangerous, closed world.

Of course, Reitman’s film is not truly about tobacco at all—not one cigarette is lit nor one wisp of smoke seen for the duration—but about the culture of spin, in which everyone, not just the lobbyists, eagerly and willingly participates. Even the self-righteous senator from Vermont practices his own kind of spin, scolding his aide for not choosing an appropriately pitiful cancer patient: “When you’re looking for a cancer kid, he should be hopeless. He should have a wheelchair. He should have trouble talking. He should have a little pet goldfish he carries around in a ziplock bag. HOPELESS!” To which the senator’s aide flusterdly remarks, “I don’t think you understand, sir; [Naylor]’s like a wild animal.” 

Throughout the film, it is clear who is better suited for the art of spin, and made visually evident through one shot in particular. When both Naylor and Finistirre are on a talk show, Reitman splits the screen, the Capitol building in the background sliced down the middle between the two. While Finistirre’s side is bland and boring, light blue against a black background, Naylor’s half of the building is bursting with color. Also obvious is the fact that Nick is the hero of the movie, while Finistirre the comical villain. Anyone who would deface cinema classics, or, as he says, “tastefully update” them by digitally removing smoking—leaving Marlene Dietrich with a steaming, smiley-faced mug instead of her cigarette holder—has to be the bad guy. In the congress hearing, the senator is shot and lit from beneath, creating an antagonistic presence. Nick is not even the worst character when it comes to selling an untruthful image; journalist Heather and Jeff, the Hollywood agent Naylor visits in an effort to put sex back into cigarettes by putting cigarettes back into the movies, out of the hands of Europeans and psychopaths (“Indiana Jones meets Jerry Maguire… on two packs a day”), both media elites, are more corrupt and more cynical than the main character.

Reitman populates Thank You for Smoking with familiar character types, but manages to make them look new again, a feat he will repeat with his other films as well. The incredible supporting cast includes Reitman regular J.K. Simmons as Nick’s offensive, glory-hogging boss, BR; Sam Eliott as the original Marlboro Man, wasting away from lung cancer,  but not so far gone as to refuse a briefcase full of cash to keep quiet; Rob Lowe as the deadpan Hollywood super-agent; Adam Brody as Jeff’s personal assistant, who offers Nick’s son orange juice while a video of killer whales mauling baby seals plays on loop on a screen in the background; Katie Holmes as the femme fatale investigative reporter; and, most memorable of all, Robert Duvall as the Captain, the last great man of tobacco, “an antebellum plantation boss living in a time warp of country clubs, mint juleps, and 1950’s-model automobiles” (Doherty 55). BR’s remark about cigarettes, “they’re cool, and available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us” applies to the movie as a whole; throw together these characters and actors, and you get a film that would have to work hard not to be funny.

Reitman’s only embellishment to Buckley’s novel is the character of Joey, who is used to further humanize Nick Naylor. Instead of telling his son that cigarettes and lying are both bad, however, Nick seems to be grooming the boy to follow in his footsteps, teaching him the art of rhetorical sophistry, the “art of bullshit,” in which you are never wrong if you argue correctly. The filmmaker partly based their interaction on his own relationship with his dad, who would talk to him, not about cigarettes, of course, but about life. “We’d just sit in the car and I’d ask him about everything. Often he’d take a business call and he’d put on the speakerphone. After we’d talk about it and what it meant. ‘Why did so and so ask for that?’ He taught me to be the man that I am,” Reitman says (Johnson). In Thank You for Smoking, the boy adores and idealizes his father, never seeing him for what he is, a point made almost palpable when we see Joey look through he window at his dad in the Marlboro Man’s house; the image is completely distorted and warped, just as many other scenes, especially in offices both in Washington and Los Angeles, are shot with a slight fish-eye, implying that the truth is being distorted. Everything is an act in Naylor’s world, a concept perfectly rendered by the montage in the end of the “defenseless,” “the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the landmine developer, the baby seal poacher.” Each of these is seen on a childlike stage set, implying that everything is a game of creating an image.

Through its rich textures and atmosphere, Thank You for Smoking is a throwback to a different era, a feeling heightened by the inclusion of old movies, the shot in the Rolls Royce (where the exterior is superimposed, creating a blurry contrast to the crisp interior, which mirrors the studio car shots of decades past), grainy, almost documentary, desaturated images of planes, jazzy music and red/black color scheme of the restaurant. At the same time, however, Nick, like the main character of Reitman’s Up in the Air, is a creature of the moment, and he must make peace with living in the present. The passing of the Captain and the attack on Naylor’s own life, as well as a “No Smoking” sign glimpsed for the first time towards the end of the movie, act as potent wakeup calls of modern time. Thank you for Smoking, like Up in the Air or Young Adult, doesn’t have a typical ending though. Nick Naylor doesn’t learn and change, he doesn’t experience any late-breaking epiphany about right and wrong, and his cynicism remains largely intact. He is seeking not redemption (“a Jimmy Stewart moment” in the congressional hearing), but revenge (“more like an Ollie North moment”), and in the end lands on his feet, declaring, “There will always be a place for guys like me.”

After Thank You for Smoking, Reitman’s second directorial effort comes as a breath of fresh air; Juno is buoyant and breezy without being flip or maudlin, and, as in the filmmaker’s previous work, “wisecracks and witty bouts of banter wash up in steady, sparkling waves” (Felperin 77). For his second intricate title sequence, Reitman starts with a comic-book animation scene that morphs into real life, as Barry Lewis Polisar’s “All I Want Is You” sets the tone. Later in the film, Kimya Dawson’s sweet, plangent folk-pop takes over most of the soundtrack, and Yo La Tengo’s “You Can Have It All” is as mellow, dreamlike and slightly lost as the teenage girl of the title, who has to speed her way through adolescence in the course of nine months. In the first scenes Juno has just found out she is pregnant, as narrated flashbacks take us back to the reason for her condition. Much has been said about how Reitman explores teenage motherhood in Juno, but the film isn’t really about the realities of pregnancy, but about the relationships between the characters, becoming “a clever riff on teen lingo and a cheerful fantasy about how a sense of humor and a good friend can get you through almost anything” (Heim 51).

Juno, like the director’s other characters, fires off edgy one-liners calculated to show the world she’s tough, when in fact she’s made up of about equal parts sarcasm and underlying vulnerability. The young girl’s snappy, frank commentary on the travails of being pregnant is at times schoolyard cool (“I’ve taken like three pregnancy tests and I’m forshizz up the spout”), at other times consciously retro (“What other shenanigans could I get into?”), and her cultural references range from the latest indie bands to the Old Testament (“I mean, can’t we just, like, kick this old school? Like, I have the baby, put it in a basket and send it your way, like Moses and the reeds?”). References, for the most part, work perfectly, such as when Juno schools Jason Bateman’s character about the films of Dario Argento. She does it in a way a real teenager would: as though Argento is her own personal discovery, “nicely capturing the feeling you have when you’re young and believe the world is the exact same age as you” (Kine 49). 

The movie, however, finds its center when she begins to reveal the not-so-secure young woman beneath the bravado, wise-cracking facade, hip dialogue and confident stance. Although she acts brave, Juno is still a child; she still uses a hamburger phone, and makes a noose out of candy when she finds out she is pregnant. She is, as she says (when her dad asks “hi big, puffy version of Juno. Where you been?”), “just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.” The title character, unlike Reitman’s previous protagonist, has her idealism and innocence largely intact, still needing “to know that it’s possible that two people can stay happy together forever.” Her father advises her to “find a person who loves you for exactly what you are—good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you. The right person is still gonna think that sun shines up your ass.” Paulie Bleeker is that person, a sometimes painfully awkward young man who, as played by Michael Cera, radiates shy kindness.

Irony informs first time screenwriter Diablo Cody’s dialogue on every level. Even when Juno calls the clinic she can’t help mocking her condition (“Hi, I’m calling to procure a hasty abortion.”) and she tells the father she has decided to “nip it in the bud, before it gets worse because they were talking in health class how a pregnancy… it can often lead to an infant.” She decides at the last moment that she wants to have the baby and give it up to adoption, not because she is necessarily pro-life, but because she is sixteen and scared. Reitman says he wouldn’t like the movie to be interpreted as anti-choice; this is the choice Juno makes, one that seems natural and helps structure the narrative around the character instead of making her submit to the workings of a plot formula. 

The adoptive parents are the image of perfection: “they were Mark and Vanessa Lorring, and they were beautiful even in black and white,” Juno says as she finds their ad in the penny-saver, “right next to terriers and iguanas and used fitness equipment and stuff.” Before we even see the couple, Reitman explains through a montage of obsessive housecleaning, and careful flower and family-friendly magazine arrangements what the image they would like to project is. The first conversation Mark and Vanessa have onscreen is about what dessert-titled shade of medium yellow to paint the walls in the baby’s room (custard or cheesecake). Their interaction centers on surfaces, around how things look rather than what they are. And on the surface, the Lorrings are, indeed, beautiful, but beneath the polite and cheerful veneer they are fundamentally unhappy, mismatched people.

The movie is concerned less with abortion and pregnancy than how to incorporate these awkward developments into an otherwise ordinary existence. Some of the quietest, simplest, most ordinary moments are the most magical and the most meaningful. Juno focuses on the lives of these people, taking the time to observe them in rich detail: Bleeker’s morning routine, the smorgasbord of different ethnic foods Juno crams on her tray at lunch, the moment Vanessa first feels Juno’s baby kick, Bren sticking up for her stepdaughter at the doctor’s, and, most importantly, the conversations between Juno and her parents. After Juno tells them she is pregnant, the camera lingers to capture their reaction: Bren saw it coming, but was hoping Juno was just “expelled or into hard drugs,” maybe a DUI, while her dad swears he’ll “punch that Bleeker kid in the wiener next time I see him,” although they both know “it wasn’t his idea.” There is nothing remarkable about this scene; what makes it remarkable is its own unremarkability. “In the same way that you can’t mention a gun in a play unless you intend to shoot it, and that there’s no such thing as an accidental cough in a TB-era drama, there’s not a lot of room in a two-hour film for a meaningful exchange that doesn’t aggressively advance the plot,” but Reitman makes room (Kine 49). The camera is steady, the dialogue slow and calm, no stylistic flourishes to talk about.

The same way Reitman puts emphasis on the content rather than the form in that scene, the whole movie benefits from a lack of artifice through not drawing attention to the camera. The director gives the film structure by marking the changing seasons (and the advancing stages of Juno’s pregnancy). With each season, the color palette and costuming change, but this happens naturally, organically. The director wanted his style to be almost imperceptible so as to never get in the way of the story:  “I think visual is a slave to the story. I set up every shot, I choose every lens, (…) –so it’s not as if I don’t care. I’m very specific, but I never want a shot that takes away from the story. The camera, like every other decision—the wardrobe, the production design—is there to showcase the story, to make the characters as believable as possible, to make the story as moving as possible (…) Nothing drives me more crazy than directors who draw attention to the camera” (James 33). Throughout Juno, and later Young Adult, Reitman’s style seamlessly conveys this belief.

From the teenage Juno, Reitman moved to a middle-aged protagonist in Up in the Air, a film based on Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name. The title describes both the main character’s literal and existential condition and the situations all the newly unemployed suddenly find themselves in. A mix of social drama, black comedy and romance, the film is “more grounded and less cynical than it initially seems,” Reitman again blending a breezy, blithe spirit with darker social satire (McCarthy 23). Like Nick Naylor, the protagonist of Up in the Air is confident and casually arrogant, but this time Reitman’s main character hides a deep undercurrent of vulnerability. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a hatchet man for hire who, like “like someone ice-skating through an oil slick, [is] trying to do a dirty job as cleanly as possible” (James 32). Bingham’s job consists of flying around the country firing people, and when the country falls on hard times, his business booms.

“All of the things you probably hate about traveling,” he says, ”the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi—are all warm reminders that I’m home.” Ryan savors the comfortable anonymity that being a perpetual voyager provides. Over 300 days of his year are spent in the air or in hotel rooms, leaving him with just a few “miserable” weeks in his sterile Spartan apartment. Bingham’s way of life is threatened, however, when his company starts considering using internet conferences to let people go. The character sees some dignity in the way he does things (“stabbing them in the chest instead of the back”), and making the experience even more impersonal and further removed is not something he is willing to accept. Ryan has elevated firing people into an art form and takes great pride in his artistry: “We are here to make limbo tolerable, to ferry the wounded souls across the river of dread until the point where hope is dimly visible… And then stop the boat, shove them into the water and make them swim.”

Reitman wrote the screenplay over six years, and admits that when he started writing (as a young, single man) he was attracted to Ryan’s philosophy, finding his backpack speeches intriguing and appealing. By the time he finished the script, the filmmaker was married and had had a child, forming a very different opinion of his character. The main character’s life is all about speed and efficiency, an existence of  “plastic membership cards and plastic smiles,” professional packets, exclusive loyalty cards, mechanical packing skills, and exact knowledge of which people are more likely to hold him up at security lines (Foundas 67). Alex, a perfect foil for Ryan, a road warrior like himself, is another character who gets “turned on by elite status,” but these are just illusions of status and efficiency. Ryan firmly believes that moving is living, and weighing ourselves down with possessions and relationships is counterintuitive to our survival and happiness. When he’s not firing people, Ryan works as a motivational speaker of sorts, convincing audiences they should give up everything that is holding them back, such as their loved ones. 

In the first such sequence in the film, Bingham asks the audience to imagine putting everything they own into a backpack—little things in drawers or on shelves, knickknacks and collectibles, and then bigger possessions like  their couch, their TV, their house and car—and setting everything on fire. “What do you want to take out of it?” he asks. “Photos? Photos are for people who can’t remember. Drink some ginkgo and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?” The second speech has to do with relationships. Bingham asks the audience to now place everyone they know into a backpack—acquaintances, friends, and finally parents, siblings, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends—and feel the weight. “All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, and compromises,” he continues. “Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life (…) Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. We are not swans. We’re sharks.” And Bingham can’t have anything stop him from moving forward, an idea conveyed through the use of the cardboard cutout. When he is trying to pack, it doesn’t fit into his bag, a simple yet perfect visual metaphor for the way his family doesn’t fit into his life.

A beautiful opening sequence features a jazz-funk version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” performed by soul group Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, as stunning aerial views of the nation scroll back and forth across the screen, eventually forming nothing more than geometrical figures, flashes of color and abstract shapes, to an almost hypnotic effect. The offbeat, striking choice of music and stunning visuals create a recognizable yet eerie feeling, informing us that what we are about to see is going to shake up our sense of the familiar. A superbly edited montage creates the same effect in one of the first scenes of the film, as Ryan is shown going through airport security. In this exquisitely choreographed ballet of passing through bag check the carryon handle collapses, shoes come off, the laptop goes into a separate tray, wallet and watch emerge from pocket and wrist, both hands always moving, performing separate yet connected actions like two people engaged in a dance. I’ve gone through airport security a few times, but I doubt my movements and actions ever looked quite like Ryan’s do. 

The song over the title sequence was originally supposed to be Hank Williams’ “Rambling Man,” a drifter’s lament that spoke to an era of traveling men, but then again, they traveled by rail, salesmen going door to door, an implication that didn’t fit with Reitman’s contemporary setting and tone. The director understands, however, that often what makes a song work is contrast. A critical wedding montage in the film, full of smiling people partying and dancing, plays out over the melancholic sound of Sad Brad Smith's “Help Yourself.” The scene is happy, but Clooney's character is feeling oddly isolated by it all. “The right song can tell you who the characters are and bring out certain emotions they’re trying to hide,” says Dana Glauberman, editor on all of Reitman’s films to date (Breznican).

Airports function as a metaphor of the search for purpose and direction. Being in an airport gives you a false notion that you are everywhere at once, that you’re connected to everything, that you have unlimited options and destinations. In reality, you are nowhere, and connected to nothing, suspended in a state of limbo. In the end, Bingham end up where he began, staring a destination board, but everything is different. Even the lighting seems somehow changed, darker; what used to look bright and busy is now dim and lifeless—the airport is no longer his home, but neither is anywhere else, and he seems more lost and desolate than ever before. Reitman denies us a Hollywood happy ending to Ryan and Alex’s romance, and he becomes nothing more than “a parenthesis” in her life. The last lines, spoken in voiceover, have a chilling effect: “Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places, and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.”

It’s often hard to capture an era while it’s happening, but in Up in the Air Reitman does so brilliantly, with wit and humanity, commenting on the financial recession as it’s going on. There’s an immediate and ingratiating novelty to the fact that so much of the movie  unfolds in cubicles and conference rooms in nondescript office buildings in Wichita, Kansas City, “and other outposts of the great American in-between” (Foundas 67). The film has the anodyne sheen of a high-end television ad, and although it’s slick, “it’s a slick critique of slickness” (James 33). The style is often at odds with the serious content, especially in the scenes of people getting fired. To add to the sense of authenticity, all the people in these scenes, apart from a few recognizable actors, are ordinary individuals who had recently been let go and offered to go through the ordeal again, this time in front of the camera. Their testimony is real and unscripted, demonstrating that in the corporate world individuals like them, white-collar workers in middle-management positions, are useful, but ultimately replaceable. All of them talk about their families and how they will be affected by their unemployment, and towards the end, say it is only because of their loved ones that they made it through.

Reitman’s fourth film, Young Adult marks his second writing collaboration with Diablo Cody after Juno, and is by far his darkest work, subverting and overturning every romantic comedy cliché and expectation, turning them to “bleak and entirely unsentimental ends” in a story about wasted lives and shattered dreams (Douthat 50). Mavis Gary peaked early. A walking pop culture cliché, she was the most popular girl in school and always had the best hair and the best boyfriend; “she spent her teens living an all-American fantasy that promised she would forever be a winner in the game of life” (Mullen). The character followed the script into adulthood, moving to the big city to become a glamorous writer; in reality, she became a ghost writer for a failing young adult series in Minneapolis, peddling the same fantasies she was sold as a kid. 

As the movie opens, Mavis is “a car crash and a train wreck rolled into one” (Mullen). She lives a lonely, sedentary life, subsisting on TV dinners and Diet Coke, her only companions her small dog Dolce and a few bottles of Scotch (Petrakis 44). Mavis, like Ryan Bingham—albeit for different reasons—has no personal relationship or human connection, spending her nights getting wasted alone in bars and picking up the occasional one night stand, and her days watching reality television and getting ready to do it all over again. Mavis writes that her books’ main character Kendal, a high school queen bee, had “a gracious, effortless beauty that flowed from within” while “other girls were so insecure, stressing about their faces, their figures.” Reitman brilliantly overlays these lines of narration with images of his character getting ready though an arduous ordeal of facials, manicure, pedicure, shaving, waxing, curling, applying hairspray,  extensions and makeup, conveying the idea that everything about Mavis’ appearance is fake, a carefully constructed illusion of beauty and happiness.

The main character has decided to go back to her “hick” hometown of Mercury to reclaim her prom queen crown and her ex-boyfriend Buddy, now a happy husband and father. The title sequence intercuts long shots of the car with extreme closeups of the tape she is listening to—all the intricate tiny mechanisms hidden beneath the surface that make everything work, and that we never think of, an indication of all the less-than-sunny things that lie beneath the character’s attractive façade. The song she’s playing is the appropriately chosen Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept,” and we see Mavis going back to one part over and over, repeating it countless times, a sign of her incompleteness and the fact that she’s stuck. The use of tapes (instead of CDs or an iPod) in and of itself implies the character is living in the past. In many ways, Mavis acts as a flip-side to Juno—whereas the sixteen year old protagonist was mature beyond her years, Mavis is in a state of arrested development, her emotional and intellectual growth stunted. The character of Young Adult is self-absorbed, delusional, and content living in her glamorous past. Throughout his career, the director chose what he calls “complicated,” “tricky” characters and tried to humanize them, to varying degrees of success. Mavis might be his biggest challenge.

Matt Freehauf, the most human and humane character of the movie, becomes her confidante and drinking partner. He tries to talk some sense into Mavis even as he worships at her feet, but he is an embittered loner with problems of his own. Known to her only as “hate crime guy,” Matt went to high school with her—“at the same time?” a horrified Mavis asks—where he was brutally beaten and left for dead. Just as he is physically crippled, Mavis is emotionally crippled, the two characters acting as foils for each other.

Throughout the movie, Mavis has a few moments of clarity, but others indulge her delusions. When she tells her parents she might be an alcoholic, they laugh it off, and in the scene where she hits her lowest point and breaks down, admitting to Sandra she has “a lot of problems” and needs to change, the unpopular girl convinces Mavis she is perfect the way she is, and everyone would want to be like her. In the end we discover Mavis is deeply damaged and defeated, less deplorable than pitiable, and one-liners that once seemed funny—like when she tells Matt she “[has] baggage too. Love conquers all. Have you not seen The Graduate, or… anything?” or when she tries to convince the happily married Buddy that “we can beat this thing together”—become sad and desperate rather than humorous. Like Nick Naylor before her, only more so, Mavis Gary doesn’t change, learn life-altering lessons, grow as a person, or redeem herself; she can’t understand why she is wrong. The last lines of the movie, an ending to Mavis’ book (“She felt the weight of her high school years lifting off of her (…) Her best years were still ahead of her. [She] was ready for the world. It was time to look to the future.”) create a complete disconnect with the reality of the character’s life.

Reitman treads the thin line between poignancy and humor in all of his films through mixing his signature satirical, charcoal comedy with dark, serious social issues. His characters are sharply drawn, complex, not readily agreeable individuals who through the course of the movies generally come to question their self-confidant, secure façade. The writer/director likes questions and ambiguity, and never tries to come up with an easy answer. In a cinematic climate in which most mainstream movies either go nowhere way too slowly or everywhere way too quickly, Reitman stands out as an independently-minded filmmaker who lets his style follow his story and his story follow his characters, who don’t always know exactly where they are and where they’re going, but take their time getting there and sometimes ultimately never arrive. “I know people are supposed to fall in love before they reproduce, but I guess normalcy isn’t really our style,” Juno concludes Reitman’s second film. Well I guess normalcy isn’t really his style either.


Works Cited

Breznican, Anthony. “Offbeat Music Lifts Up in the Air Higher. USA Today. 2009.
Cooper, Rand Richards. “Spin Doctor.” Commonweal. 133.9 (2006): 20-21.
Doherty, Thomas. “Thank You for Smoking. Cineaste. 31.3 (2006): 54-56.
Douthat, Ross G. “The Capital Burns.” National Review. 58.6 (2006): 54-55.
Felperin, Leslie. “Thank You for Smoking.” Sight and Sound. 16.7 (2006): 76-77.
Foundas, Scott. “Up in the Air.” Film Comment. 45.6 (2009): 67-68.
Heim, David. “Juno.” Christian Century. 125.7 (2008): 51-52.
Jacobson, Harlan. “All Fired Up.” Film Comment. 45.6 (2009): 20-21.
James, Nick. “No Place Like Home.” Sight and Sound. 20.2 (2010): 30-33.
Johnson, Brian D. “Jason Reitman Is on Fire. Maclean's. 119.13 (2006): 48-50.
Juno. Dir. Jason Reitman. Perf. Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Gerner, Jason Bateman,
Allison Janey, and J.K. Simmons. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008. DVD.
Kine, Starlee. “About a Girl: Jason Reitman’s Juno Grows Up Before Your Eyes. Film
Comment. 43.6 (2007): 48-50.
McCarthy John P. “Flying Solo: A Road Movie for the Great Recession.”America. 202.3 (2002):
Mullen, Lisa. “Young Adult.” Sight and Sound. 22.3 (2012)
Petrakis, John. “Young Adult.” Christian Century. 129.2 (2012): 44.
Thank You for Smoking. Dir. Jason Reitman. Perf. Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall,
Cameron Bright, Rob Lowe, and J.K. Simmons. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment,
2007. DVD.
Up in the Air. Dir. Jason Reitman. Perf. George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrik, and
Jason Bateman. Paramount Home Entertainemtn, 2010. DVD.
Young Adult. Dir. Jason Reitman. Perf. Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswald, and
Elizabeth Reaser. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2012. DVD.


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