Young Adam Movie Review
Joe works a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, working for grouchy middle-aged public servant Les (Peter Mullan) and his miserable wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Shortly after they discover a dead body floating in the water, Joe and Ella begin a torrid affair right under Les's nose. Much like the Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, this film adaptation keeps all the fleshy sex scenes front-and-center while losing the moral confusion and dark side of cultural idealism that can't be captured onscreen via Ewan McGregor's endless brooding and cigarette smoking and arid shots of Joe against industrial backdrops.
McGregor gives a committed performance even while he's hopelessly miscast. This most virile of European actors somehow continually gets cast as writers -- penning the "Spectacular Spectacular" in Moulin Rouge and even getting cast as James Joyce(!) in Nora. He's not meant to be a man of letters any more than the less talented Chris O'Donnell was meant to play Ernest Hemingway. He's best cast as wild men with a lust for life, and might've been more appropriate for a balls-out, charismatic Henry Miller than for the dour, humorless Alexander Trocchi.
As the love triangle literally drifts along, Young Adam intercuts Joe's current malaise with a prior affair with the underwritten Cathie (Emily Mortimer). After meeting cute on the beach and sharing a cigarette, it's not long before they're screwing under railway cars and -- in what's meant to be the film's highlight of brutish eroticism -- roughly screwing while Joe sprays Cathie with ketchup, mustard, and other culinary delights. The near-rape aspect of the sequence is glossed over because it ends nearly as abruptly as it begins, and writer-director David Mackenzie is more enamored by an underwater shot minutes later as Joe tosses his beloved typewriter into the canal.
These frequent sexual encounters aren't given any moral weight beyond Mackenzie's sad-sack visuals, which is to say that their free-fall sex takes place in a cold, bleak world and is just as empty as anything else. It's unfortunate that most movies treat the sexual experience as something miserable (whereas The Last Tango in Paris understood that it can be at least a temporary refuge from the random cruelties of the world, and at best something sublime). Young Adam is so confused about its own message, it tacks on a courtroom trial in the final act where Joe must test his character and decide if he's learned right from wrong.
John Cougar Mellencamp (ugh... I know) once sang, "I fight authority / Authority always wins." At least he was fighting. Young Adam's protagonist might instead say, "I stand by while authority always wins." The inherent lack of drama in that statement, and lack of any shred of purposefulness, might make for a strong existential novel -- but as a movie, it's a nothing statement surrounded by voluptuous, passionless sex. Even with all that humping going on, Young Adam is a snooze.
The DVD includes two commentary tracks, one extended scene, and a reading of the original voiceover (by McGregor) which was eventually cut from the film.
Reviewed as part of the 2003 New York Film Festival.
Pass the mayo.