Jason Reitman seems to be developing an oeuvre that nails the zeitgeist, whether that's his intention or not. Juno hit teen culture and the shabbiness of middle class living. Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air set their stories against the moral compromises created by capitalism, with Up in the Air being more specific about harsh choices created by the economic downturn. This time to focus shifts to our culture of narcissism, which again is not the prime subject, but everywhere in the atmosphere in which it unfolds. This helps to keep the films from seeming like Very Important Lessons, from which we might retreat and roll our eyes, and serves to render the lessons more potent, and result in films that become better and better upon reflection.
We open with Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary waking from being passed-out drunk. That she is alcoholic is presented as a fact, but never named or dwelled upon. Every time she is alone in her apartment of hotel room, there is a reality TV show, usually the Kardashians, going in the background. She wakes, turns on her computer, and finds a new baby announcement from her high school boyfriend, Buddy, and his wife, both back in her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Mavis has moved to the "big city" of Minneapolis. She prints it out and stares at it obsessively. To the movie's credit, it doesn't reveal the reason Mavis is so obsessed with this until the last minutes of the movie. She meets with a friend who also moved to Minneapolis from Mercury, saying they're "Lucky we got out when we did," as she sits the shoveling McDonalds into her mouth, which made me laugh, familiar as I am with New Yorker's assumption that they have narrowly escaped a horrific life of banal drudgery to a glorious, sophisticated existence as defined by magazines... written by New Yorkers. And here the woman is shown sitting the eating McDonalds... oh yeah, it's SO much better than being stuck in a small town! Another hilarious touch in which the movie nails Mavis' narcissism is when she asks the McDonalds-eating friend if Buddy including her in the email blast about his new baby is "like a slap in the face."
Next Mavis goes on a date with some guy she clearly isn't into, and ends up sleeping with him, and the next morning abandons him in her apartment, takes her tiny dog Dolce, gets in her car and heads back to Mercury. On the way she listens to an old mixtape Buddy made her, with a certain passage of a song that repeats "I didn't want to hurt you." She calls Buddy, let's him know she's in town, then goes into a bar, where she meets Patton Oswalt as Matt, who recognizes Mavis, although she doesn't recognize him until she realizes he's "the hate crime guy," who had his legs shattered and genitalia mangled by jocks who assumed he was gay, although he's not. They become drinking buddies for the rest of the film. She confides to him her plan to get Buddy back, which he tells her is insane, but she concludes "Buddy has a baby, and babies are boring."
Mavis continues her tradition of passing out with drink every night. The movie makes comedy of the way she makes herself up to look as though she's really got it all together for the occasions in which she meets Buddy. He is polite but not entirely interested, and ends up inviting her to a local concert in which his wife's band is performing. Mavis makes herself up for the occasion, and tries to buy Buddy shots and force other intimacies, all of which he is bewildered or oblivious to. Then Buddy's wife, from the band, sends out a special dedication to him--and it's the same song as on the mixtape he made Mavis. The repeating of the one section of song during the credits pays off, because the moment relies on your recognizing the song. I suspect Mavis would consider this a "slap in the face."
I won't go through the rest of the plot, mostly because it's too low-key and not dependent on plot turns to make a good recitation. But the thing of small touches laid in here paying off dividends way down the line continues, as many threads resurface again and again. Mavis' advances become more and more inappropriate. She says and does many more cruel and self-centered things. And in the next paragraph I'm going to discuss some specifics of the ending, which, if you're going to see the movie, I would suggest you skip.
SPOILERS > > >
It all comes to a head, where Mavis makes a huge scene in front of Buddy and his wife, and we learn that Mavis miscarried Buddy's baby, back in the day--which explains her obsession with Buddy's baby announcement, and Mavis' whole mission back home. She goes to Matt's, where we have an indelible image of her reduced to her lowest when we see her naked, two external breast implants adhered to her. Then, just when you think Mavis has had her comeuppance and now the movie can wrap up, which is where the more conventional similar movie Greenberg chose to end things, Mavis goes upstairs and encounters Matt's sister, who tells her fuck this shithole, you were lucky to get out of here, and you're awesome. Mavis seems to remember "Yeah, that's right, I'm AWESOME!" and returns to her life in the city. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
As I said, I had the pleasant experience of finding that this movie just gets better and tighter upon reflection. Theron is very good, but rather than her delivery or execution of certain scenes, her most powerful contribution is the dead, rapacious expression she carries in her eyes throughout the entire film. This entire performance is made by her eyes, regarding the entire world as enemies from whom she must strategize to get what little she can. The placing of the Kardashians in the background of so many scenes works not for the cheap dis of reality television, but because the Kardashians pursue the same status and possession-focused view of success and sophistication that Mavis does. She believes she is superior in her urban life because that's what the media--which the Kardashians and their values exemplify--tells her. The movie succeeds by just letting this all play in the background, setting the social scene and the values that all of this plays out against.
Toward the end there are revealed to be two characters with defective reproductive organs, which is also an unusually nasty way of framing the situation--if your image is largely based on how attractive and sexy you are, but inside you know there is something "defective" about you, and it's only a matter of time before people find out... Toward the end, truly terrible as she's been, one gains a bit of sympathy for Mavis, because we get hints of how she ended up the way she did. She never had to be nice to anyone, because she was pretty. By the time she needed a friend, she had no way of asking for one and no skills to make one, and we are to understand that she has had her share of suffering alone. And by the end we can see that, while she may express contempt for others, it begins with her seething contempt for herself.
My friend contrasted this with Shame in saying that there, one felt the movie was lacking in explanation of why the main character is the way he is, but he didn't feel that here. I would say that's because in Shame, the movie didn't supply much else except that being a sex addict sucks, so one reached for explanations as a way to flesh out the content of the film. Here, there is plenty of material giving hints as to how Mavis ended up this way, it's just that it's so subtle and indirectly related it doesn't necessarily seem like background material. The other movie to compare this to is Noah Baumbach's Greeenberg, which offered a portrait of a narcissistic aging Gen-Xer who also hurts those in his midst. The difference is that Baumbach's writing is strictly from the creative writing workshop, with all the edges sanded down and any sense of vitality dampened by the strictures of the form he's forcing himself into. Therefore in Greenberg we have to have our character arrive at some sense of self-revelation, whereas here our character perversely has her worst impulses validated, and flies off having glimpsed personal revelation, and turned away. She'll just keep driving steadily toward disaster, thank you very much.
So, unexpectedly much better and richer than expected, and the unusual film that keeps getting better and more interesting upon reflection. It seems that Reitman knows how to make mainstream, middlebrow entertainments that retain real bite and edge--no small feat.