When writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman teamed up on the 2007 film, Juno, the responses were mixed. Some people liked it quite a bit, not just because it was clever and quippy, but also because it presented a realistic, affecting look at the inherent drama of teenage pregnancy. Other people thought that it was painfully self-conscious in its hipness and insufferably annoying in its quirk, so they raged against any praise that came its way.
Their next team-up, Young Adult, was different though. Not only did this look at a washed-up YA author traveling back to her home town in order to break up her high school sweetheart’s marriage do well with Juno fans, it did quite well with those who couldn’t stand Cody’s writing up to that point, as well. Charlize Theron’s painfully honest protagonist and Patton Oswalt’s achingly tragic supporting character really hit home for most.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2005 film Lonesome Jim doesn’t get very many mentions in a very many circles.
On a couple levels, that makes sense. It’s a micro-budget indie that doesn’t provide any spectacle and didn’t get much promotion, and it was only seen on a handful of screens during its theatrical release. On the other hand, there are several reasons why you’d think this movie would have gotten more play over time. It’s one of the few films directed by Steve Buscemi, who everybody seems to love, it’s got great lead performances by Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler, who are both chock-full of mainstream appeal, it’s got veteran actors like Seymour Cassel and Mary Kay Place, proving that they’re still vital talents, and it’s even got great character actors like Kevin Corrigan and Mark Boone Jr, showing how much they can liven up a production with even small appearances.
Yeah, Lonesome Jim is pretty much the bee’s knees, and it’s seriously underpraised.
What do they have in common?
If you’re looking for movies about lead characters who are selfish jerks, then these are the films for you. Both Young Adult and Lonesome Jim feature cocky characters who have failed in their lives to some degree, and who find themselves crawling back to their sleepy hometowns with their tails between their legs.
In Young Adult’s case, the character is Theron’s Mavis, who always thought she was prettier and cooler than all the people she grew up with. In Lonesome Jim we’re dealing with Affleck’s Jim, who’s pseudo-intellectualism makes him feel above the small town surroundings he grew up in. Basically, these are two of the most selfish, self-important characters ever put on film. But what do you expect? They’re writers.
Oh yeah, and both of these movies feature characters who love chain restaurants. Sick!
Why is Young Adult overrated?
The main problem with Young Adult, even though it’s less in-your-face than Juno, is that it’s still just so cynical and condescending in its depiction of… well, everything. And not necessarily in a darkly funny way either. There are huge chunks of Young Adult that just feel bitter. And never is that mean approach more apparent than in the depiction of the main character, Mavis. There’s nothing to like about this woman. She’s petty, she’s vain, and she’s completely willing to destroy other people’s lives in order to help herself.
By the time her behavior hits a crescendo of crazy at a baby’s birthday party, she becomes so psychotic that her actions aren’t even believable anymore. Here the film goes from being cynical to being desperate in its attempts to manufacture drama.
The real heart of the movie is in the relationship that blossoms between Mavis and Oswalt’s character, Matt. He’s the local dork—the local cripple—who had his legs crushed and his dick knocked sideways when the jocks gave him a gang beating back in high school. Despite the fact that their characters are complete opposites, their bitterness manages to click without effort, and the movie is always at its best when they’re getting drunk together and riffing. But instead of focusing on the dynamic chemistry between these two characters, Young Adult is more interested in following the rock stupid plot line of Mavis trying to get her high school boyfriend back.
Every time the Theron/Oswalt dynamic starts to build a little momentum, it gets interrupted as we’re shunted back to Mavis’s dumb world of grooming rituals and YA writing.
Despite the fact that their burgeoning friendship never gets the screen time it deserves, it does still manage to build to a really strong, affecting resolution. But, unfortunately, instead of ending the film there, Reitman and Cody give us a couple more scenes that absolutely piss all over the emotional catharsis achieved so that they can end things on a down note devoid of any character development. It’s like a cinematic slap in the face.
Why is Lonesome Jim underpraised?
While a movie like Young Adult takes place in an exaggerated, demonized version of Middle America, a wasteland of chain restaurants and corporate logos populated by simple, naive philistines, Lonesome Jim is the sort of movie that takes place in a stark, realist version of Middle America; because it knows that’s bleak enough already. The other characters Jim encounters don’t know much of anything about his pantheon of favorite authors, but they’ve learned the importance of honesty and integrity (well, except Mark Boone Jr’s drug-dealing uncle, Evil). Their tastes are unrefined, but they’re more likely to lend a helping hand than they are to hatch a scheme to exploit their neighbor.
And Jim, he’s a total shit, but he’s not a caricature of cretinism like Mavis. When he sees someone’s child he disinterestedly says hello to them, he doesn’t recoil in mock disgust. He takes money out of his mom’s purse, but he’s not deliberately trying to ruin someone’s marriage. As a matter of fact, when Jim’s uncle Evil takes bad behavior to an unacceptable level and gets an innocent woman thrown in jail, Jim knows that things have gone too far, and he refuses to take any more part in Evil’s selfish scheming. This is a movie with shades of grey, one that delivers up delicious nuances to discover.
It’s a movie about real people going through real tragedies: suicide attempts, drug addictions, and clinical depression. Young Adult is, comparatively, a trifle about a spoiled child trying to rekindle her youth at the expense of others.
Lonesome Jim is funny too. Evil is a completely despicable character for whom there is no chance of redemption, but he’s a side character used mostly for comic relief, and not the main person we have to spend all of our time with, so his antics don’t weigh so heavily on us that we can’t laugh at them. Watching Boone weave a tapestry of sleaze as Evil is a positively joyful experience. And the broad humor of the Evil character isn’t all this film has to offer either.
The movie is constantly making subtle little jokes, and it never lingers on them or winks at the viewer. Jim’s mother is comically overprotective and smothering, but she never becomes a punchline. Every time you think she’s about to become a simple annoyance, something heartbreakingly real happens that endears her completely. So when Jim borrows her van, makes her walk to the grocery store, and honks and waves as he flies past her on the street; well it becomes a hilarious moment that you could just blink and miss. One of many.
Evening the Odds
Maybe the best way to compare and contrast these two films is to look at their endings. Neither of these characters, Mavis or Jim, enjoys going back to their home towns. Despite the fact that their parents are good people, they resent them. Despite the fact that they meet good people there who want to support them, they’re unappreciative of anyone’s efforts. To need help shows weakness. To take an extended hand would be an admittance that you’re not above the person reaching out.
By the end of Young Adult Mavis has very purposefully and willfully rejected any growth, change, or lessons learned from her trip to the suburbs. She ends her journey in the same place she started it, with all the same problems lingering over her. By the end of Lonesome Jim Jim is still a mostly immature and selfish person. But he’s taken that first step toward growth. He’s allowed himself to look stupid and vulnerable, and he’s finally made a show of reaching out to someone. Here are two movies, with similar stories and similar characters, but only one seems interested in telling a complete story.