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Open Thread: Let’s Talk About the Ending of ‘Young Adult’

Young Adult, the dark comedy starring Charlize Theron that re-teams Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, went into wide release last weekend (after hitting a few screens the weekend before), and now that it’s out, we’re again in the odd position of wanting to talk explicitly about the film’s ending — specifically about its closing scenes, which are (for our money) where Young Adult stops being a good movie and becomes a great one. Of course, not everyone sees movies within the first three days, so we’ll wait to get into this further until after the jump — where you’ll find some thoughts on the closing scenes from us, and from director Jason Reitman. So, y’know, duly noted, spoiler warnings, etc., etc.

In many ways, Cody’s screenplay unfolds in familiar strokes — Theron’s shallow, manipulative Mavis returns to her small hometown with her sights set on ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), wife and new baby be damned. There’s a melancholy feel to the picture, but it is first and foremost a comedy, the laughs provided by Theron’s unapologetic callowness (it’s a terrific performance by an actor who absolutely refuses to condescend to her character) and by audience surrogate Patton Oswalt, as high school outcast Matt Freehauf.

This climax in stories like this is, inevitably, the public unraveling. It’s what we’re waiting for, like the surprise kiss in the rom-com or the wait-he’s-not-dead-YET final jump in the horror film. Mavis goes to a baby-naming ceremony at the home of Buddy and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser), lays out her plan to Buddy, and is instantly rejected. Out on the front lawn, as Mavis is still reassembling her shattered confidence, things turn ugly. What’s remarkable about the scene is how Reitman and Cody refuse to go for the easy laugh — the sequence is unexpectedly raw and painful (and then, on top of that, a little funny), the character taken seriously, as ridiculous as she might occasionally be.

I asked director Reitman about that scene, and the scenes that follow, at a press event last month. “That scene, and the two scenes that follow it,” he told me, “are the three scenes that made me want to make this movie. I think if you had just shown me the first two acts of this screenplay, I’d have been like, ‘Eh, this seems like a great script.’ But what you realize when you get to the third act of this movie is that the first two acts are really there to set you up for those three scenes. Like a magic trick. You are set up to believe that she’s a certain type of character with a certain type of past, that you are in a certain type of tonal experience in a certain type of movie, and then you hit these three scenes, and they blindside you. And that’s how I felt when I read the script, and that’s how I wanted the audience to feel when they saw the movie. I wanted them to be uncomfortable, I wanted people to cringe, I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done in my other films.

“I wanted them to look at the screen, and I wanted them to be so in the moment that they felt like they were standing on that lawn, watching Charlize break down right in front of them, and they don’t know what to say — because you feel sorry for her, you’re not sure if you’re part of the cause of this, it’s just so uncomfortable.”

The filmmakers subvert expectation altogether, however, in the film’s final significant dialogue scene. “She sits down for breakfast,” Reitman explains, “and you think, ‘Okay, this is the scene where she learns something, she becomes a better person, she gets in the car, she’s gonna go work for the Red Cross or something,’ I don’t know.”

That is, at risk of giving away the farm entirely, not what happens. But Reitman’s right — to this viewer’s eyes, anyway, that final turn is where the film’s genius lies, in giving the audience an ending that does not satisfy our preconceived notions of how storytelling like this works. It may not meet the classic, Aristotelian definition of drama, but it rings true to the filmmaker in a way that most films don’t care to admit.

“I like characters that don’t change,” Reitman says, “because I don’t think people change. Or they very rarely do, or they do by a tiny percent. I think people have revelatory moments, and they learn things, but most often they don’t change off of those things — or they change for five days. The number of times you’ve gone on a diet for five days, or become a vegan for five days, or become more conscientious about something, or gone to temple, or whatever that is. We have moments where we think, ‘Oh, I should be doing that more, I should call my mother more,’ and you call your mother for five days.

“So that’s why Up in the Air ends the way does, and that’s why this movie ends the way it does. They end with people learning things, and very well not changing.”

What do you think? Is Young Adult’s ending a sly subversion of conventional expectation, or an unsatisfying resolution to an unhappy story?

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