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On Movies: 'Young Adult' mixes funny and sad; 'Hugo' maintains tension

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2011 - In her even younger days, before she became a successful screenwriter, Diablo Cody supported herself as a stripper. "If this whole writing thing doesn't work out," she once said, "I'll be getting right back on the pole."

A return to strip clubs became considerably less likely in 2007, when a movie Cody wrote -- "Juno" -- became a surprise critical and commercial hit. Her script subsequently won an Oscar. But she clearly remembers what it's like for a woman to scuffle, as witness 37-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), the fidgety bundle of ego and insecurity at the center of the deliciously dark new comedy "Young Adult." Cody wrote the smart, pungent script, which is breezily directed by "Juno" director Ivan Reitman.

Mavis lives in a high-rise in Minneapolis and writes romantic novels for "Young Adults," which means teenagers. She spends her days in front of a laptop reliving the joys and agonies of high school. Her latest series has been fairly successful, but it's running out of steam, and she isn't sure if she can finish it, much less come up with a successful new series. Neither is her publisher.

Then Buddy, her high-school boyfriend, now happily married, sends her a baby announcement. Mavis takes it personally, as a challenge - she decides she's still in love with Buddy, back home with his wife and baby in tiny, bucolic Mercury, Minn. And how could Buddy not still be in love with her? She throws clothes in a suitcase and grabs the dog - tiny as a cat and bristling with fur --for a trip back to Mercury, where she can reclaim Buddy, wife and baby be damned.

Mavis, as you might have noticed, is not a nice person - Cody has called Mavis an "anti-hero." But, as played with bright-eyed self-absorption by Theron, she's almost irresistibly watchable.

In Mercury, she keeps running into people she doesn't recognize, but who remember her, and they seem alert to the inevitable moment when she strikes like a snake. It quickly becomes clear that teenage Mavis (smart, pretty, snooty) was one of the high school's Mean Girls, perhaps the meanest of them all.

She hadn't even bothered to be mean to short, fat Matt Freehauf, who is played wonderfully by comedian Patton Oswald ("Big Fan"). He runs into Mavis at a bar, where she is plotting her assault on Buddy. They were classmates, although she doesn't remember him right off. Matt was too big a loser to have been noticed by young Mavis, even though his locker was next to hers. Then she notices he walks with crutches, and she remembers: "You were the hate crime guy!" I'll leave to the movie the explanation of that remark, an explanation that is tragic in its nature and painfully funny in the ways it plays out.

Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is still a freckle-faced, easy-going, All-American good-looker, and Mavis assumes he's still in love with her. When he invites her to a party out of friendship, she takes it as an invitation to romance. The more he politely rebuffs her, the more she misunderstands. How could Buddy resist her, despite his wife and kid? It's as if she was still playing homecoming queen at a high school that everyone else her age had graduated from, or been kicked out of, 20 years ago.

"Young Adult" is wonderfully cast, from the three main stars to the small supporting actors - like the seen-it-all clerk at the motel where Mavis stays in Mercury, and Mavis' sweet and perplexed parents. Reitman, as he demonstrated most recently with "Up in the Air," is an adept director of movies that are simultaneously funny and very sad. And Cody's script is her best work yet. "Young Adult" is a little gem of a movie.

Opens Friday Dec. 16

"Hugo"

I finally caught up with "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's passionate marvel of a movie about an orphaned young man who lives behind the marble walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s. When his guardian uncle goes missing, the boy secretly takes over the uncle's job -- he keeps the station's clocks running from a cavernous series of hidden rooms and walkways that are filled with levers and pulleys and gears and things with springs. But he's always in danger of being found out and sent to an orphanage, and there are a couple of breathtaking chase scenes through the maze of a train station.

The movie's overall tone is sweet and melancholic, but until the rousing climax a sense of threat always hovers over the story, which evolves into a richly human narrative about a subject dear to the director's heart - the early history of the movies.

I had only one problem with "Hugo." It's in 3D. In objecting to what may be the wave of the cinematic future. I must admit, I feel a little like the kind of old dude who balks at every new technology. Well, I am an old dude. Old enough to remember that 3D has been the apparent wave of the cinematic future several times in the past 60 years, and it always seems to create a brief furor and then fade away.

My problem with 3D is that it isolates figures in the foreground and makes everything in the background blurry, particularly when the director's pallet is dark, as Scorsese's is. There appears to be no such thing in 3D as deep focus, no tying together of the various objects and subjects in the frame. To me, 3D looks more artificial than 2D, and less crisp. It may work for computer-generated fantasy - like "Avatar" - where the whole idea is the Wow! Factor of the unearthly imagery, or for pure animation, but "Hugo" is a real and complicated story about believable people and heartfelt emotions, with wonderful actors in a number of roles, and to me 3D diminishes its power. It's a distraction, not an enhancement.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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