Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Short Take: "Young Adult" and "A Dangerous Method".

The biggest problem with all of Jason Reitman's movies is that his characters never humanize the nifty, clever concepts they represent. Juno for example, never really was more than a smart-ass teenager who failed sex-ed, Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air failed to becomes something more than a symbol of the recession and  his female sidekicks in that one, were flat portrayals of society's insistence that women must play either whores or ice-queens. 
It results pleasantly surprising then to find a real human being in what posed to be Reitman's most artificial character yet. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) had all the potential to become a caricature: a beautiful but emotionally hollow divorcee, who writes young adult fiction and decides to visit her hometown just to get her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) back.
Yet what Theron does defies expectations of both the character and the actress' own ability to use her beauty to construct an even more beautiful performance. Mavis is quite an ugly person, she drinks too much, holds contempt for everyone she knows and seems to have no regard whatsoever for anything or anyone that isn't her. As written by Diablo Cody, Mavis has remained trapped in eternal adolescence, she is the ultimate "mean girl". As played by Theron she is a flawed human being who has earned a right to be this way. The actress doesn't look for easy explanations, other than the fact that Mavis is truly a unique person who can not be defined by societal standards. It's a pleasure to see Theron, for once, collaborating with her extraordinary physique; she doesn't hide it under makeup, prosthetic pieces or miner wear, she owns up to it in such a way that during the movie's most tender scene, she actually allows herself to be "ugly" selfconsciously. She also displays a knack for comedic timing (she and Patton Oswalt make the most unique comedy duo of 2011) and if anything else, she proves that the best acting comes from within. Check out the last scene in this movie, you never get to hate and love someone this much.

Christopher Hampton's screenplays often boast astonishing literary pedigree and more often than not feel almost too pompous in their achievements. While this might've worked perfectly for the nihilist seducers of Dangerous Liaisons it truly feels misguided in A Dangerous Method, a film that like Liaisons and Atonement, features a fascinating menage a trois through which the author explores the darkest desires of the human mind.
The issue is that this time around, the characters are real life people and quite notorious for that matter. The plot centers on the relationship between Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and her psychoanalysts: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Spielrein goes from being Jung's patient, to becoming his mistress which leads to melodramatic consequences and her eventual treatment with Freud.
For decades, David Cronenberg has been one of the most consistent researchers of what moves human sexuality and what desire consists of. It makes sense then that he would try to get to the essence of it by studying the men who obsessed over this as much as he did.
If Cronenebrg movies prove something is that the erotic element can be completely removed from intercourse and added to different elements. "Pleasure is never simple" adds one of the characters in this movie and the truth is that Cronenberg has been much more successful in exploring the complicated turns of sexuality in movies like Crash and even A History of Violence which successfully links the thrill of crime with the jolt achieved during an orgasm.
The film feels too polished for the subject it explores and its intellectualism is too often stalled by Hampton's excessive theatricality (the screenplay was based on his eponymous play). Perhaps the problem is that the movie is stuck between wanting to be a biopic and an auterist essay. Needless to say so, the cast is truly extraordinary with Mortensen creating a Freud for the ages. The actor infuses the famed analyst with his knack for knowing more about a character than he lets the audience knows. Watching his subtly passionate attempt to convince Jung of his beliefs is a true joy to watch and considering he could've spent the movie smoking cigars and mimicking Freud, his performance taps into something far more extraordinary.
The movie however owes itself to Knightley's brilliant work who as Spielrein gives the best performance of her career. Allowing her body to transform itself as Sabina endures the pain of her disorder, the actress disappears only to then blossom as her character finds new hope through intellectual development.

Grades
Young Adult ***
A Dangerous Method ***

3 comments:

W.R. said...

Great reviews Jose. It sucks that Knightley wasn't nominated for a Genie Award and her male co-stars were.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Two fantastic lead actress performances, no? It's not my favourite for Keira (Eliza B. and Cee all the way), and maybe not my favourite for Charlize (I like her in Monster) but they're such brave turns. And, I hate rewarding actors for being brave in their performances but the performances are excellent in addition to eschewing any sentiment or self consciousness that you might have expected from the roles.

I even agree with you on the ratings (the stars align every other month, yay) both good with a slight something lacking but definitely worthy of commendation.

(Neither here nor there on the love for Oswalt, though. Sort of collectively shrugging.)

Runs Like A Gay said...

Excellent comments, even if you seemed to like Dangerous Method more than I did (I wanted it to be more interesting than it was).

I though Charlize was superb in YA, one of the most accomplished and fearless performances I've seen in a long time. It's a please to both love and hate someone as complex as Mavis.