Film Review: Young Adult

Charlize Theron proves her comedic chops as a narcissistic writer out to break up her old boyfriend’s marriage in this entertaining new collaboration between 'Juno' writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman.

Charlize Theron deservedly won an Oscar in 2004 as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a startling performance in which this screen beauty transformed herself into a homely, vicious and volatile real-life serial killer. In Young Adult, Theron’s good looks remain intact, but her Mavis Gary is a monster of a different sort: a self-absorbed, emotionally needy writer with a wicked tongue and a most unattractive lack of empathy for her fellow human beings. Yet, as abrasive as Mavis is, Theron makes her irresistibly entertaining, revealing previously untapped gifts as a movie comedian.

Of course, it helps that Theron is working from a script by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning writer of Juno whose tart, unsentimental approach to characterization has made her one of the more interesting comic voices in movies today. Young Adult walks a tricky line between cynicism and compassion, laughter and tragedy, letting us both revel in and gasp at Mavis’ wildly inappropriate behavior but ultimately generating a modicum of sympathy for this beautiful train wreck, even if she would never respond in kind.

The divorced Mavis lives alone with her neglected little dog in a Minneapolis condo and ghost-writes the “Waverley Prep” young-adult fiction series, which has declined in readership and is coming to an end. Cody quickly establishes her anti-heroine’s superficial nature when a date tells her he used to teach children in Phnom Penh; a blasé Mavis can only respond with “Yikes!”

The plot is set in motion when Mavis receives a birth announcement e-mail from her high-school boyfriend Buddy Slade and his wife Beth, who still live in her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Disturbed by the news, Mavis decides to return to Mercury with a vague plan to seduce Buddy and “rescue” him from his drab domestic trap.

Killing time in a local bar, Mavis is recognized by another former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), whom she eventually recalls as “the hate crime guy”—the victim of a savage gay-bashing (though Matt isn’t gay) which left him crippled and deformed for life. As the film progresses, Matt and Mavis evolve into a curious pair of drinking buddies, with Matt horrified by Mavis’ scheme to break up Buddy’s marriage but gratified by the attentions of this once-unapproachable goddess. “Guys like me are born loving women like you,” he confesses late in the movie.

In contrast to Mavis’ machinations, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is utterly without guile—a middle-class suburbanite who hangs out at the local sports bar and embraces his role as new dad and loving husband of the equally cheerful Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). The unsuspecting couple warmly welcome Mavis’ return, even inviting her out to hear Beth’s amateur rock band, which has the nerve to play the Teenage Fanclub song Mavis has been obsessing over since high school. Needless to say, once Mavis makes her move, things do not go according to her impulsive plan.

Throughout, Cody maintains a delicate balance, inviting us to share Mavis’ condescending, spiteful view of her hometown (where a new Chipotle at the mall is cause for celebration) but ultimately creating a stark contrast between the decency of the Slades and Mavis’ irredeemable selfishness. A brief scene of Mavis at home with her oblivious parents says volumes about why she’s so damaged, and lends pathos and dimension to a character who could have been pure caricature.

That Mavis commands our attention and doesn’t alienate the audience is a tribute to Theron’s gifts as an actress honing a nuanced portrait and as a comedian nailing every laugh. And the offbeat pairing of Theron with rotund stand-up comic Oswalt (perhaps best known as a supporting player in “The King of Queens” and as the voice of Remy the rat in Ratatouille) is inspired. Wounded, acerbic Matt is both the audience surrogate, an intimate eyewitness to Mavis’ outrages, and a funny, poignant and memorable character who could sustain his own movie. Together, Matt and Mavis may be the movie couple of the year.

Director Jason Reitman, reuniting with Cody, again proves himself both an astute actors’ director and a confident stylist. Among the lively visual elements he supplies are several montages of what it takes to maintain Mavis’ lovely façade, and an ongoing dialogue between Mavis’ teen fiction and her own real-life foibles.

Adhering to the “Seinfeld” dictum of “no hugging, no learning,” Cody puts Mavis back on the road to Minneapolis with nary a life lesson under her seat belt. You wouldn’t want to spend more than 90 minutes with this appalling woman, but Charlize Theron makes you happy you did.