If someone asks you why you like comedic cinema, you’ll probably be inclined to answer simply: Because it feels good to laugh. And, yes, that’s true; but don’t lie to yourself. This is a safe space. Whether or not you’re cognizant of it, there’s more to the picture than that. Indeed, one of the main reasons that we all like comedy is because we like watching people make fools out of themselves. And when examining the medium’s genesis, this is totally unsurprising, as comedic cinema was more or less born from slapstick routines: Watching characters be put through the wringer. Although the popularity of slapstick has largely declined at the hand of a contemporary affinity for cringe-based humor popularized by the mid-2000s phenomenon of things like The Office and Borat, a good comedy featuring someone humiliating themselves has remained a cornerstone of the genre.
In many ways, the 2011 dramedy Young Adult fits these cringe-humor prerequisites. Directed by Jason Reitman—who followed his father Ivan Reitman into comedy filmmaking by helming things like Juno and a couple episodes of The Office (both grounded in humiliation-based humor)—and written by Juno’s Diablo Cody, Young Adult is a bleak tragicomedy about a middle-aged woman who refuses to leave her high-school glory days behind. But despite the film largely resembling a regular comedy, by interrogating but then rebuffing comedic conventions established by shows like The Office, and Saturday Night Live (on which Reitman added an extra dose of actors making themselves look ridiculous), Young Adult begs the question: What happens when the tenet of schadenfreude is implemented in a comedy, but not used for comedy’s sake?
Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a successful author and, of course, effortlessly and exquisitely beautiful. But she’s not a good person. She mocks others, neglects her helpless Pomeranian, and, most of all, is hellbent on stealing back her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) despite him being a happily married new father. And while Young Adult is an undeniably funny film (Mavis conspicuously sneaking her pooch into a hotel stands out in particular), the moments where she humiliates herself (and there are a lot) are largely not. To fully appreciate Reitman’s dissection and subversion of this technique, perhaps it would be beneficial to understand why it appeals to us so much in the first place.
The way I see it, there are three reasons schadenfreude is so effective in comedy. First, the ability to humiliate oneself onscreen demonstrates remarkable vulnerability from our favorite actors. Through this, the filmmakers gain our trust, and allow us to feel more connected to the film. And on a semi-sadistic level, these kinds of films and performances remind us that, well, we don’t have it all that bad.
These things are all well and good when it’s good-spirited. But what happens when the epic disgraces are set up the way a hilarious punchline would be, but aren’t played for laughs? Young Adult is written as one long string of cynical jokes, bolstered by a gloriously self-deprecating performance by Theron. That is, until the big climax—the moment that, by comedic standards, should be the funniest. Instead, the experience is downright uncomfortable: Instead of allowing its audience to be transported into this comfortable province of cathartic and gratifying comedy, it calls on us to peer inward, and consider that perhaps we enjoy this schadenfreude experience even more than we enjoy the comedy in which it usually comes packaged.
Although we may be rooting for her on some level, the trajectory of Mavis’ campaign to win Buddy back is not a victorious one in any way. At the end of the film, Buddy reveals that his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), is the reason for his perceived friendship and hospitality. Beth feels sorry for Mavis, as does Buddy…as does their entire town; Buddy saying “It’s obvious you’re having some mental sickness” really rubs salt in the wound. This horrifyingly embarrassing moment presents itself as a perfect catalyst for Mavis to finally change. But she doesn’t. In one of the final scenes, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), a girl who idolized Mavis in high school, tells her that she’s perfect the way she is, and Mavis takes this baseless compliment to heart, as evinced by her expression switching to genuine appreciation, and her “Thank you” sounding, for once, sincere.
When a film presents familiar psychological set-ups while omitting the things that are actually satisfying about them, it’s hard not to then think about the genre in stripped-down, fundamental terms. Slasher films are a good point of comparison here. Yes, they’re fun (at least some of us think so, okay?), but they also present us with a unique opportunity to experience something psychologically fulfilling. Slasher films offer the catharsis—and almost relief—of being able to confront something horrible that could happen to any of us, in a controlled setting. And if stripped of their satisfying gore, they’re essentially just people getting hurt. Is humiliating oneself, then, not a version of the same thing? Mavis’s breakdown doesn’t provide us with the comfortable comedic barrier typically reassuring us that it’s just a movie. Instead, she publicly mulls over a traumatic experience (the miscarriage she had when her and Buddy were still together), and is vicious in a way that makes us feel sorry both for her and the people she is scorning.
In fact, Mavis might as well be offering us a roadmap of how to make a fool out of yourself. She consistently goes against her old classmate Matt’s (Patton Oswalt) advice not to go after Buddy—and her willfulness culminates in a scene where she drunkenly shouts at a crowd of people in a juice-stained satin blouse. This moment is not emotionally satisfying, nor does it serve Mavis’s arc—as mentioned before, she basically doesn’t have one. Cody and Reitman set up this moment by building up to it with a storyline chock-full of smaller comic moments. But by denying us our comic needs, the filmmakers instead force us to consider that certain kinds of comedies might merely be repetitive exercises in watching people embarrass themselves—and without the added chaser of a laugh, this becomes almost painfully clear. More than just a sharp dramedy, Young Adult strips the slapstick to cringe-comedy movement down to its fundamentals, its deconstruction providing astute insight into why that movement even happened in the first place.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.