Jason Reitman’s fifth feature film, Labor Day, hits theaters this Friday, but while I haven’t seen it yet the advance word has been a far cry from the critical acclaim his movies usually receive. To be fair, it’s also by all accounts a different beast from Reitman’s previous films as it concentrates more on the drama than on the acerbic, darkly comedic wit.
It’s for this reason that I decided to go back a few years to Reitman’s last film, the blackly comic, emotionally tragic, and sadly under-seen Young Adult, for this week’s commentary listen. Well, that and the fact that one of the best films to play this year’s Sundance, Listen Up Philip, reminded me positively of it. Both movies are excellent entries in the canon of “asshole cinema” in that their lead characters are irredeemable pricks struggling to conceal their humanity and causing all manner of hilarity and emotional distress along the way.
Charlize Theron plays a young adult novelist who returns home to her small town to reclaim her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) in the hopes that it will knock her out of the doldrums of both her career and her life. Her efforts don’t quite go according to plan and instead she’s forced face to face with the reality of the person she’s become.
Young Adult (2011)
Commentators: Jason Reitman (director), Eric Steelberg (director of photography), Jason A. Blumenfeld (1st assistant director/associate producer)
1. Writer Diablo Cody wanted the first sound of the film to be audio from a reality TV show “as if that was the sound of the main character breaking down.”
2. It was Theron’s idea to introduce Mavis (her character) drinking straight out of a two-liter bottle. She’s essentially a child with her own check book.
3. The early scene where Mavis twirls and pulls a hair from her head required a “hair-pulling model.”
4. Reitman was excited at the prospect of the film’s first eight minutes being nearly free of dialogue in part because his previous three films are so dialogue heavy.
5. They used two different Minis for the film. One was normal, but the other was an extended cab for shooting handheld scenes inside.
6. The Hampton Inn check-in scene where Mavis is asked if there’s a dog in the bag was accomplished with an R/C car moving inside.
7. “The original cut of this film had a lot of drinking in it,” says Reitman. Early test screenings revealed audiences thought the movie was about an alcoholic, but he didn’t want people thinking her behavior was attributed simply to a drinking problem so he trimmed a lot of it back.
8. Reitman had intended to make Labor Day his fourth film, but it was pushed back, giving him the opportunity to do Young Adult instead. He did table reads at his house, and after Patton Oswalt helped out with one of the roles, Reitman decided he wanted Oswalt to actually star in the film.
9. This was Reitman’s first film shot on digital (an Alexa). He had liked the way Mike Mills’ Beginners looked and decided it would work for this story, too.
10. It was a challenge dressing Wilson for the film because he’s “in phenomenal shape, and we wanted to make it look as though he had let go a little since high school.” The solution was clothing a size or two too big.
11. The bookstore scene required a handful of titles for Mavis’ teen series so Reitman emailed Cody to ask for ten fake titles. She replied back in fifteen minutes with titles like “Galloping Toward Trouble.”
12. Reitman feels that the song, “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub, was perfect for the film as it occupies a very specific place in time. “That’s a lot of what this movie is about,” he says, referring to people who view life as existing before and after the one perfect time in their life.
13. The filmmakers viewed this as a horror film, of sorts, as they were all in agreement that Mavis is in essence a monster trying to murder a marriage.
14. Reitman says that while he enjoyed reading the script’s first two acts, it was the third that made him want to direct it. Mavis’ breakdown on the front lawn during the baby-naming party was one of the specific scenes, and he marvels that Theron nailed it in just two takes. “This is a movie designed to make you squirm,” says Reitman.
15. Reitman says the Theron/Oswalt sex scene was “one of those scenes that you just dread shooting.”
16. The glimpse of Matt’s shrunken leg during the sex scene was accomplished digitally. They put black dots on his leg, and digital artists modified it in post.
17. The scene at the end of the film between Mavis and Matt’s sister (Colette Wolfe) is one of Reitman’s favorite that he’s ever shot. He loves seeing a character who’s on the verge of a much needed change only to be talked out of it and instead talked into returning to who she already is.
18. They initially tried having a teenage actress do the voiceover readings from Mavis’ book, but it was decided that wasn’t working so they had Theron record it instead.
19. After the commentary recording, Reitman was heading to his high school to interview director Drake Doremus in front of the students. “I like to give back to my high school.”
20. The commentary was recorded on December 1st, 2011, and Reitman comments that the movie hasn’t even been released yet. “People may hate it. I might make one dollar. Or maybe it’ll make Avatar money.”
Best in Commentary
- Reitman: “I want to be the first to commit pump-milk to a bag.”
- Reitman: “It was a heartbreaking romance about a love that cannot be, one person who’s broken on the inside, and one person who’s broken on the outside… Here was a romance based on two people saying, ‘Ah, he hates all the same things I hate.’”
- Reitman: “This scene coming up is a lesson to you young filmmakers out there… Always get coverage.”
- Reitman: “The conceit of this film is that positive people are no fun to be around.”
Young Adult remains my favorite of Reitman’s films even after multiple viewings. I’ve always been partial to black comedies, but I also have a soft spot for films that succeed with an extremely unlikable lead character. Cody’s script is incredibly smart, Theron’s performance is terrifically brave, and Reitman’s direction has just the right touch to pull off the story they’re all wanting to tell.
His commentary offers some interesting observations on the film’s themes alongside the usual anecdotes and compliments making it a fun and informative listen. Granted, it would have been even better if he revealed the dirty joke that Theron shared with him the first time they met.