Young Adam - Movie Review

  • 01 November 2005

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

"That was pointless," muttered a fellow critic after leaving a screening of Young Adam. Well, he's almost right. The only discernable purpose of the movie is to have Ewan McGregor's solemn, conscience-deprived drifter Joe screw every woman in sight. I was immediately reminded of interviews with James Spader around the time of David Cronenberg's remarkable Crash, where he described his proactive role in the casting process because he gets to have simulated sex with each of his female co-stars. If that seems a shallow way of viewing this adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's celebrated beat novel (which has earned comparisons with Albert Camus's The Stranger), well, this is a pretty shallow movie from the word go. The images feel flat, the dialogue literary, and the performances strong but non-captivating.

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.

Image caption Young Adam

Facts and Figures

Year: 2003

In Theaters: Friday 26th September 2003

Box Office USA: $0.7M

Box Office Worldwide: $2.5M

Budget: $6.4M

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Production compaines: Recorded Picture Company (RPC)

Reviews 1.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 74 Rotten: 45

IMDB: 6.4 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: David Mackenzie

Producer: Jeremy Thomas

Screenwriter: David Mackenzie

Starring: Ewan McGregor as Joe Taylor, Tilda Swinton as Ella Gault, Peter Mullan as Les Gault, Emily Mortimer as Cathie Dimly, Jack McElhone as Jim Gault, Therese Bradley as Gwen, Ewan Stewart as Daniel Gordon, Stuart McQuarrie as Bill, Pauline Turner as Connie, Alan Cooke as Bob M'bussi, Rory McCann as Sam, Ian Hanmore as Freight Supervisor, Mhairi Steenbock as Cathie's Flatmate, Anne Marie Timoney as Mrs. Gordon

Also starring: Jeremy Thomas, David Mackenzie