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Diablo Cody Explores The Ugly Side Of Pretty In 'Young Adult'

Dec 15, 2011
Originally published on December 16, 2011 1:23 pm

Charlize Theron is ugly in Young Adult, the new film from the Juno team of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody — both literally and personally. In parts of the film, she still looks like her knockout movie-star self, but in other parts, she looks like she's aged a year for every day since her character, Mavis Gary, left high school.

Nevertheless, it's not Mavis' failure to look like a knockout that's most disorienting, as Cody discusses with Renee Montagne on Friday's Morning Edition. It's the dark selfishness of her quest to blow into her old hometown, break up her high school boyfriend's marriage and claim him for herself. She's not deterred by the fact that he and his wife just had a baby, either. In fact, it's that, and not love, that motivates her.

Cody says, "It's maddening for her to see someone she considers 'less than' — she felt that she had moved beyond him and become more successful than him, and now he has the audacity to be happy and have a child, and she can't handle that." And lest you think this is a replay of My Best Friend's Wedding, Cody had no intentions of replaying what she calls the "trope" of the woman who is desperate to reclaim her lost love while the man who's right for her languishes before her eyes. "I thought, well, what's a way that I can turn this on its ear and do something that's really dark and unexpected?"

Mavis' journey is, indeed, nothing if not dark. She has no shame in telling a saleswoman that the reason she's shopping for an outfit is to snatch away a married man. And Cody says her bluntness and plain-spokenness about her nasty motives didn't happen accidentally: "I noticed in so many conventional romantic comedies, the women are always getting flustered. She never is. She blatantly tells the saleswoman that she's trying to break up a marriage."

This is not Theron's first foray into real darkness, of course. Cody remembers, as audiences undoubtedly will, the work that Theron did in Monster, where she won a boatload of awards — including an Oscar — for her portrayal of executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos. There, Theron changed herself physically: she gained weight and wore extensive makeup for the role to change her appearance. Here, as Cody puts it, "she had to find a way to make herself look haggard just using her natural acting ability. In Monster, there was a physical transformation, whereas here, she continued to be herself and the being haggard couldn't be makeup or gained weight."

Cody says Mavis is the kind of character — deeply unpleasant — that she wasn't certain audiences would accept. "I had honestly never seen anything like it before, except in certain instances with male leads. I think we're more conditioned to accept a male curmudgeon or a male antihero."

If indeed Mavis is an antihero, it's not surprising to learn that Cody found it a little unnerving to be told by her husband that she reminded him of this character more than any other she's written. At first, she bristled, but then it occurred to her that this was perhaps not just about her, but was about the broader way society is changing.

"I feel like I'm part of a generation of people who are stuck in the past and are really self-absorbed. I mean, we're actually taking pictures of ourselves and posting them on Facebook, and keeping in touch with people that should have been out of our lives 15 years ago. Obsessing over who's getting married, who's having kids, who's more successful. It's like we're recreating high school every single day using social media. And it's weird."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The movie "Juno" introduced audiences to a quirky teen. The title character was quick-witted and confident, even when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JUNO")

ELLEN PAGE: (as Juno) I could like, have this baby and give it to someone that like, totally needs it.

OLIVIA THIRLBY: (as Leah) You should look in the Penny Saver.

PAGE: (as Juno) They have ads for parents?

THIRLBY: (as Leah) Yeah, "Desperately Seeking Spawn."

MONTAGNE: "Juno" also introduced screenwriter Diablo Cody. That mix of sass and sentiment won her an Oscar for Best Screenplay, the first she'd ever written. In her new movie, "Young Adult," Diablo Cody is back in adolescent girl territory with a dark twist. This character is an adult who spends her life channeling a teenager as a writer of young-adult novels.

Mavis, played by Charlize Theron, has all the superficial trappings of a successful 30-something: an apartment in the big city - Minneapolis - slender skirts, high heels, a small dog, and lots and lots of cocktails. She's also lonely, emotionally stunted and ruthless - so much so, she decides happiness lies in returning home to steal back her high school boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG ADULT")

CHARLIZE THERON: (as Mavis Gary) And here's the deal, Buddy Slade and I are meant to be together. And I'm here to get him back.

PATTON OSWALT: (as Matt Freehauf) I'm pretty sure he's married with a kid on the way.

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) No, kid's here. I'm cool with it. I mean, I've got baggage, too.

OSWALT: (as Matt Freehauf) I would keep all of this to yourself. I would find a therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Diablo Cody joined us at NPR West to talk about her new movie, "Young Adult." Good morning.

DIABLO CODY: Hi. Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: I'm fine. Let's start with the character of Mavis Gary. Now, she's got a measure of success as a ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels called "Waverley Prep." I mean, it's not exactly the "Twilight" series.

CODY: No, she's not - she hasn't set the literary world on fire. But she's from a small town, so she's relatively successful.

MONTAGNE: And at the point that we meet her, she doesn't seem to have ever grown out of her high school glory, whatever that glory was. She's very pretty so probably prom queen, or one of the popular girls. But we discover that she hasn't grown up when she gets this e-mail that contains a birth announcement.

CODY: Yes. I mean, she was already pretty dissatisfied in her life. But the trigger that really sends her over the edge is this email that she receives from her high school sweetheart, announcing that he has - him and his wife have had a baby. That information just plunges her into an entirely different world of pain. And I think it's maddening for her to see somebody that she considers less than - who, you know, she felt that she had moved beyond him and become more successful than him. And now, he has the audacity to be happy and to have a child. And she can't handle that.

MONTAGNE: Let's take it back to when she first arrives back in her hometown - Mercury, Minnesota. She goes in to buy a new dress and right off, she's scheming to look really, really good. And let's play a clip from the movie. She's shopping for an outfit that she will meet Buddy in, and talking to a saleswoman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG ADULT")

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) I'm going to a rock concert with an old flame, and I think there is a chance we may reconnect.

ELIZABETH WARD LAND: (as Saleswoman) Let's show him what he's been missing.

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) No, he's seen me recently. He knows. But his wife hasn't seen me in a while so...

MONTAGNE: Whoa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And the saleswoman backs off.

CODY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And you do laugh but also, there is a - it's a quite cringe-inducing moment.

CODY: It is. I mean, it's why I loved writing this character so much - is because I noticed in so many conventional romantic comedies, the women are always getting flustered. It's like this cute thing, you know - oh, yah-yah-yah. And she never is. I mean, she's blatantly telling the saleswoman that she is trying to break up a marriage. She's just credibly blunt, and that is fun to write. That was cathartic.

MONTAGNE: One thing about this movie is that, at least at the beginning, in the setup, it seems as if it almost could go in the direction of "My Best Friend's Wedding"...

CODY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...with Julia Roberts, a big movie with Julia Roberts where she wanted to get back her ex-boyfriend, steal him away from his fiancee before he gets married.

CODY: There definitely is like a mainstream, romantic comedy version of this movie. That's - and I wanted to kind of play with the ideas of the genre a little bit. You know, the idea - we have seen movies before about the woman who wants to get the guy back, but the guy who's right for her is right in front of her. You know, it's this trope that we've seen a million times in films.

And I thought, you know, what's a way that I can turn this on its ear, and do something that's actually really dark and unexpected? So even though some of those elements are there, the way it plays out is very different than anything you've seen - I hope.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing about her, she's a beautiful - physically beautiful person, as Charlize Theron.

CODY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: For starters.

CODY: She is really beautiful.

MONTAGNE: But a sort of ugly person, at the same time.

CODY: Well, that's - that's - Charlize is incredible. I mean, everybody knows that. She's already this celebrated actor. But what's incredible about her is, in this role, she had to find a way to make herself haggard just using her natural acting ability. Because when she was - for instance, when she was in the movie "Monster," you know, she played serial killer and she was amazing, and she won an Oscar. But she also had gained weight, and there was makeup involved. And so she was - there was a physical transformation as well.

Whereas, she wasn't able to use any of those tricks for this movie. And I think some people have said she's even scarier in "Young Adult" then she is in "Monster." So that's a testament to how great of an actor she is.

MONTAGNE: Well, she is sort of the monster that we all might have known in high school.

CODY: Yes. She's the devil that you know, as the saying goes.

MONTAGNE: This must be a challenge though, asking an audience to connect with a character who's unlikable.

CODY: It is a challenge. And it's something that throughout the process of writing the script, throughout the process of developing the film, I was nervous. You know, I thought to myself, are people going to accept it? I honestly had never seen anything like it before, except in certain instances with male leads.

You know, I think we're more conditioned to accept a male curmudgeon or a male anti-hero. And so, I was worried. And maybe I still have reason to be worried.

MONTAGNE: Well, you wrote a piece in Newsweek recently, saying that you were annoyed when your husband said he sees a lot of Mavis in you.

CODY: I was surprised because, you know, he's seen everything I've written. And he had never really said oh, you remind me of that character you wrote. And then he saw "Young Adult" and said oh, wow, like finally, I'm seeing you. That's Ma - and I thought, oh my God, I'm so insulted. Like, you know, Mavis is the most flawed character I've ever written, and you think I'm like her. But then I realized it's not just me, it's kind of a generational thing.

Like, I feel like I'm part of a generation of people who are stuck in the past and are really self-absorbed. I mean, we're actually taking pictures of ourselves and posting them on Facebook, and keeping in touch with people that should have been out of our lives 15 years ago; obsessing over who's getting married, who's having kids, who's more successful. It's like we're re-creating high school every single day using social media. And it's weird.

MONTAGNE: Diablo Cody, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

CODY: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay for the new movie "Young Adult."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.