Friday, March 16, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: Special "Actresses Screwed By Oscar" Edition: Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in MELANCHOLIA (2011); Charlize Theron in YOUNG ADULT (2011)

(Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany - 2011)

As a filmmaker, Lars von Trier is the kind of provocateur who constantly walks that fine line between "visionary genius" and "kid in the back of the classroom making fart noises under his arm."  A lot of what von Trier does, he does simply for the reaction and the attention.  He very nearly derailed MELANCHOLIA's Cannes showing last year with comments that came across as strangely pro-Hitler, so much so that star Kirsten Dunst said something to the effect of "Sometimes Lars doesn't know when to shut up."  And he should shut up and let his films speak for themselves, because the mesmerizing MELANCHOLIA is a one-of-a-kind film--a simple description would be that it's von Trier's Tarkovsky film--and probably the director's best since 1996's BREAKING THE WAVES.

The first half of the film presents what's possibly the most awkward wedding reception in film history, as Justine (Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes) realizes early into the reception that she doesn't really want to be with Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  Von Trier plays things close to the vest, and it doesn't take long, judging from the couple's interactions and family reactions (horrible mom Charlotte Rampling delivers the most uncomfortably bitter wedding toast ever), to see that Justine is severely depressed and mentally ill to a significant degree.  The second half of the film takes place some time later (weeks, maybe months) as Justine, who's worse than ever, is staying with her devoted, long-suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr) at their ludicrously expansive mansion (they have their own 18-hole golf course) as Melancholia, a planet long hidden behind the sun, has gone off course and is set to pass--or possibly collide with--Earth.

Dunst is a revelation here, but as great as she is, Gainsbourg is the driving force and central character throughout MELANCHOLIA.  Both deserved Oscar nominations (probably Sutherland as well) and I can only conclude that von Trier's big mouth stopped that from happening.  Gainsbourg allowed herself to be put through hell on von Trier's ANTICHRIST (2009) and does it again here, albeit to a lesser degree.  Gainsbourg has always been a fine actress, but von Trier brings out the absolute best in her.  It's interesting to consider the horror stories that actresses have in regards to working with von Trier, but the stars of his films with women as central characters--Emily Watson in BREAKING THE WAVES, Bjork in DANCER IN THE DARK, Nicole Kidman in DOGVILLE, Gainsbourg and Dunst--have turned in some of the most moving, haunting, unforgettable performances in film in the last couple decades. In short, MELANCHOLIA is a stunning experience, filled with von Trier's usual sense of cynical misanthropia, but there's a focus and a maturity to it that was lacking in some of his past work, especially the experimental and over-the-top DOGVILLE and its disastrous follow-up MANDERLAY.  But it's also got more humor than usual (a long limo unable to make it up the sharp turns of John's twisty driveway; Udo Kier as a bitchy, drama queen wedding planner who refuses to look at Justine when she and Michael are late to the reception).  Also with Stellan Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, and John Hurt.  One of 2011's best.  (R, 135 mins).

(US - 2011)

Despite mostly positive reviews and early awards buzz, YOUNG ADULT disappeared from theaters fairly quickly.  Probably a variety of reasons:  released at the wrong time, not really a wide-release, "in theaters everywhere" kind of movie, or people realized they were still sick of JUNO screenwriter Diablo Cody.  However annoying she may be, YOUNG ADULT is Cody's most accomplished, mature script thus far (no snarky, hipster witticisms or catchphrases to be heard here), but she and JUNO director Jason Reitman didn't have anywhere near the same level of audience interest this time out.  That's a shame, because it's an excellent, difficult film that's not for all tastes, and it's indeed one that's occasionally just too dark and uncomfortable.  I wish I'd seen this in theaters just to experience the baby-naming party with an audience.  Charlize Theron, in a great performance, is Mavis Gary, an alcoholic, self-destructive, Minneapolis-based ghost writer of a past-its-prime Young Adult fiction series.  37 and recently divorced, she decides to head back to Mercury, the small Minnesota town of her youth, with the intention of reconnecting and running off with her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), even though he's happily married with a newborn daughter.  For most of the film, Theron's Mavis comes across as bitchy and self-absorbed, and completely oblivious to the fact that her plan is selfish and ridiculous.  But through her interactions with Buddy and with forgotten high school outcast Matt (Patton Oswalt), left disabled from a beating he received from a group of jocks ("the same ones you used to blow during lunch," he reminds her), and with whom she forms an unlikely bond, we start to see just how much pain and sadness Mavis is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to hide. 

And even despite that, she's still a profoundly unlikable person who still thinks she's better than everyone else, which may be the biggest reason this didn't catch on with mainstream audiences who demand likable protagonists.  Mavis is likely going home not just for Buddy, but also because, anonymous professionally as well as personally in the big city, Mercury is the one place she's still "somebody."   The film takes no pleasure in Mavis' misery and impending breakdown, nor does it let the outcasts off the hook, as in the revelatory scene where Matt's sister (Collette Wolfe) still resorts to kissing Mavis' ass in a pathetic, 20-years-past-high school attempt to win her favor.  Theron and Oswalt are both terrific.  Between this and the equally squirm-inducing BIG FAN, Oswalt has evolved into a gifted character actor.  YOUNG ADULT is funny, tragic, devastating, angry, and bleakly depressing in equal doses.  One late plot turn doesn't ring entirely true and the finale seems entirely too rushed (at just past 90 minutes, this actually might've felt more complete if it was 10-15 minutes longer) but this is the kind of film, like an EMPIRE RECORDS or a DONNIE DARKO, just to name two films that initially fell through the cracks only to be discovered some time later on VHS or DVD, that speaks to a certain age group at the time of its release and is embraced as something very personal and meaningful to them.  And it's a film that will have staying power and be able to find new viewers who get to the right age to relate to it, and who may find themselves pushing 40 and nowhere near where they wanted to be in life.  YOUNG ADULT was sold to the JUNO crowd, but it should've included the caveat "Give it 20 years...you'll get it then."  (R, 93 mins)

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