Mavis (Charlize Theron) gives a look of disgust in Young Adult.
I'm one of those heartless individuals still bitter that Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her turgid Juno screenplay in 2007. But honest to blog, her work in Jason Reitman's latest is the highlight of the film. This is the work of someone who's clearly matured over time. Gone is the insufferable snark. Instead, she focuses on genuinely developing her very unique characters. Young Adult is funny, but in a very dark way. The tone is consistent, and though you're rarely overtaken by any kind of emotion, the film is always intriguing.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a Minneapolis-based author (ghost writer for a popular teenage series, to be exact). She spends most evenings getting hammered and most of her mornings sneaking out of some guy's apartment. That said, she's at least grateful for having been able to escape her hick hometown—Mercury. But after getting a birth announcement from her high school beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Mavis is shell-shocked. She is Buddy's soulmate, and she feels a certain responsibility to let him know she's still available and interested. So she packs up and heads back to Mercury in order to rescue Buddy from the horrors of domestic tranquility.
It's clear Mavis has a number of psychological issues. She's depressed and an alcoholic. Worse, perhaps, is her egocentricity. To Mavis, it seems completely ludicrous that Buddy would prefer his wife and child to Mavis, the prettiest and most successful girl in high school. A lot of what's interesting about the film is how seemingly plausible the feelings are. Though her plight is ludicrous, everyone went to high school with Mavis. She's vapid, very shallow, but she's also deeply insecure and hides a lot behind her "better-than-you" facade.
Obviously, such a complicated character needs a great actress behind her, and Charlize Theron is more than up to the task. Make no mistake: This character isn't nice. But Theron keeps her vulnerable enough that we don't despise her like we perhaps should. She also says a lot non-verbally. One of her go-to expressions was one of what I'm calling "vacant incredulity." It happened whenever someone says something that seems reasonable to us, but shocking to her, and it never failed to make me laugh.
Fantastic supporting work is offered by Patton Oswalt as Matt, a former classmate and new drinking buddy of Mavis' who's suffered all his life after a horrific beating he received in high school. This isn't the first time he's breaking out of the comedic sidekick role (those of you who saw Big Fan know what I'm talking about). And though he's funny, his best moments are ones in which he opens up about his physical problems and resulting insecurities. In so many ways, Matt is Mavis' equal, and one of Young Adult's big questions centers around whether Mavis will wake up and realize this.
Jason Reitman's direction is decidedly low-key, as he lets his writer and actors take center stage, but this film doesn't need flashy direction to make an impact. Young Adult is a darker-than-black comedy that achieves precisely what it's trying to. And though I only give it three stars, it's not because the film has any glaring issues. In fact, it shows flashes of brilliance. Those flashes are just too few and far between to give it any higher of a rating. Still, this is a worthy entry in Reitman's canon and a signal of big things to come for Cody.