If Ebertfest has taught us anything it’s that everyone has a different relationship with Roger Ebert. Whether he was the film critic, friend or teacher, Roger connected with seemingly everyone with whom he came in contact. This idea was the guiding principle during last night’s screening of "Young Adult," in which Patton Oswalt prefaced the film by saying, “Roger was a doorway out of the suburbs for me.”
As a film fanatic in his teenage years, Oswalt read Roger’s annual “Movie Home Companion” religiously. The books led him to films that explored worlds and people outside of his quaint, but limiting, hometown in Portsmouth, VA. The movies, as Oswalt noted, allowed him to travel outside of the insular bubble he had been trapped in during adolescence.
Fittingly enough, the conceit of a small hometown is at the very heart of Jason Reitman’s fourth film, in which the main character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), travels back to Mercury, Minnesota to rekindle a romance with her high school lover.
Since high school, Gary has moved to Minneapolis (jokingly referred to as a big, booming, bustling city), married, divorced, and written a once popular, now fading YA series. To call Gary unpleasant would be the understatement of the century. She is malicious, narcissistic and relentlessly nasty to everyone and everything, save for old flame Buddy Slade (the high school boyfriend played by Patrick Wilson).
Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman ("Up In the Air," "Juno," "Thank You For Smoking"), I assumed that Ebertfest goers would find "Young Adult" to be too cruel and abrasive. But I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Every cringe-inducing sequence in which Mavis attempts to win Buddy back (now married and with a child) elicited laughter. When Mavis’ malevolence becomes overwhelming, the film wisely intertwines the Matt Freehauf character (played by Oswalt), a man whose locker was right next to Gary all throughout high school. Their friendship now is born out of a shared affinity for bourbon. There’s a heartbreaking back story to Oswalt’s character that Gary promptly disregards as “living in the past”—while she herself has returned home to reboot a romance that died decades ago.
While Oswalt was especially good in the film (and in "Big Fan," which played during the 2012 Ebertfest), it was his performance during the Q&A that won people over this year. It began with RogerEbert.com contributor Susan Wloszczyna claiming that Oswalt’s crippled character reminded her of an orc. Yes, an orc. It was all uphill from then on.
Wloszczyna’s line of questioning had less linearity than a Terrence Malick movie (such much so that Oswalt poked fun at the sharp critic). No matter, the conversation—which was also moderated by Ain’t It Cool’s Steve Prokopy—was all encompassing, touching on topics from method acting to shooting a sex scene with a woman Oswalt called the “Nexus Android” of human specimens to Oswalt claiming his torso is a “living tribute to Walter Matthau’s face.”
This unconventional Q&A did not adhere to any sort of rigid formatting. Which in a way is kind of perfect as "Young Adult" similarly eschews conventionality, instead opting for a story that Oswalt called “anti-arch and anti-growth.”
Other subjects during the Q&A included Oswalt’s origins as an actor, which really began while performing standup comedy during his years at the College of William Mary. It just so happened that one night while completing his set, a young Paul Thomas Anderson was in the audience. The two began working together soon after.
From jokes about French bulldogs—which Oswalt deems “the cutest, worst designed animals who fart too much and die slowly”—to biting observations on our obsession with retaining youth, day two at Ebertfest concluded with a bang. At a time of night when everyone should’ve been exhausted, the lauded comic energized us, tearing the Virginia Theater down with his poignancy and comedy.