The sharp and darkly funny Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis, an angry, desperate young-adult lit author returning home to sabotage her high-school boyfriend’s new family and steal him (Patrick Wilson) back.
It also marks the reunion of Juno director Jason Rietman (Up in the Air) with screenwriter Diablo Cody, who won the Original Screenplay Oscar in 2008.
Theron is scary good as mean Mavis, but Young Adult has also been garnering rave reviews (and Supporting Actor buzz) for comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. He plays Matt, a physically and emotionally damaged former classmate of Mavis’ who becomes her confidante and Greek Chorus sparring partner.
A true geek’s geek, Oswalt is one of the smartest, funniest comedians working today (not to mention a terrific and hilarious writer), and he’s had plenty of bit parts in TV shows and films like The King of Queens and Blade Trinity, as well as voicing Remy the Rat in Ratatouille.
But Oswalt’s starring role in the 2009 dark-comic indie film Big Fan fully revealed his dramatic acting chops. Those chops are once again on display in Young Adult as Matt, a complex character who’s geeky and sardonically funny, but also nuanced with bittersweet grace and melancholy.
I’m a huge fan of of Oswalt’s entire career and could have talked to him for hours about film, comic books, comedy, and pop culture. Alas, when the actor-comedian called me a few weeks ago, we only had 10 minutes to chat primarily about Young Adult, but Oswalt was gracious and thoughtful.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody had worked together before on Juno, but at what point in the Young Adult production process did you get involved?
Patton Oswalt: It was pretty early on. I kind of knew Jason and would go to his house because he screens movies every Sunday. When the Young Adult script came along from Diablo, he wanted to hear how it sounded out loud, so he would do these very informal table reads that I helped out with. For one of them Charlize came and did it, and our chemistry was so good, and Jason really thought we got along, so I was offered the part. I wish I had a more glamorous story, but I got offered the part from the table reads.
Cody has such a distinct writing voice, but how much of the character of Matt is you, especially in terms of dialogue? Was there any collaboration or was it pretty much all her script?
Oswalt: It really was off of her script. Her script was so good, and I didn’t really add a lot to it. I think there’s too much of a cult of improvisation theses days, where people fail to read the scripts. Her script is really good, and as an actor you will look good if you just read it, so that’s what I did.
Things like Matt making bourbon and reworking action figures–those seemed tailored for you.
Oswalt: No, they weren’t, they were in the script. The only thing I added to the action figure stuff was that originally Matt just painted them and collected them, and I was the one who suggested that he mix and match the figures and put the legs from one on the body of another. Only because I was seeing that on online sites, and I thought it was so symbolic of what Matt wishes would happen in his life.
Harry Shearer once said, “The reason people do comedy is to try to control why others laugh at them.” As a comedian, how much of that informs your portrayal of Matt?
Oswalt: Somewhat, yeah. I think it has much more to do with Matt being so good at giving advice and pointing out what people are missing in their lives and have been neglecting. He’s good at spotting it because that’s what he’s neglecting, and he hasn’t turned that knowledge and wisdom into use for himself. Which I think is such a universal human condition, on so many levels.
There’s a point where Mavis becomes such an out-of-control monster, she could have really alienated the audience. But Matt’s decency acts as a counter balance, almost like a Jiminy Cricket conscience. He keeps the viewer from becoming repelled by Mavis.
Oswalt: I think that Mavis is more fascinating than repelling, even though she’s awful, so you still follow her along. There’s nothing supernatural or otherworldly about her– everyone who’s seen this movie says, “I know a Mavis, I know someone just like that.”
Because they’re your high-profile dramatic roles, people are bound to compare Matt in Young Adult with Paul in Big Fan. [As an obsessive supporter of the New York Football Giants, Paul spends all his time calling into sports talk-radio shows.]
Oswalt: The big, glaring difference is Matt is reaching out to light and life and some internal beauty and completeness, whereas Paul is hurling away from the sun as fast as he can. Paul talks to the outside world through a telephone, and by the end of Big Fan he’s even talking to his one friend through a telephone. It’s like he’s done, he’s completely cut off, and that’s the one time in the movie he’s completely happy. Whereas Matt wants exactly the opposite.
There’s no point where Matt comes off as pathetic or bitter–he’s not played for laughs. For example, the fact he makes bourbon is not a joke–it’s sincere and something he’s very proud of.
Oswalt: It takes time and a lot of effort to make good bourbon, and Matt thinks it’s worth his time to do it. He’s searching for beauty.
We see more comedians and comic actors playing dramatic roles these days. With this and Big Fan, was the turn toward more serious, dramatic roles something you planned?
Oswalt: It’s pretty much kismet at this point. I don’t have that much control over my career, so it’s where the offers are taking me. I wish I could say that I’m planning it.
Young Adult opens at select theaters this Friday, December 9, and will be expanding across the country in coming weeks.