Mavis Gary’s got issues. A late-thirtysomething ghostwriter of a tween fiction series (“Waverly Prep”) that has reached its end, the protagonist of Young Adult is a binge-drinking, unemployed sloth who has little to show for her lowbrow literary success except a sterile apartment, a different one-night-stand each night, and more than a few pathologies, including hair-pulling. (During the first instance of this, a friend leaned over to me and whispered, “trichotillomania.” That’s her condition.)
Awash with booze and maybe a little wanderlust, Mavis (Charlize Theron) gets an e-mail from old high school flame Buddy, announcing his upcoming baby shower.
One look at this mass message, and Mavis, out of the blue, makes it her mission to win this guy back. What follows would typically be the plot of a romantic comedy a la Sweet Home Alabama, but it is never romantic and, sometimes, not even funny. But for the most part, Diablo Cody‘s script is hilariously caustic, bitter and astringent, enough to send the softies away in droves and keep the cynics’ attention.
When Mavis returns to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, whose quaintness has now been plowed over by strip malls and combination-fast-food franchises, she has no difficulty getting Buddy, obviously married and with baby-in-tow, to meet her.
But unknown to her, his kindness is mostly out of a pity more than anything else. Buddy, played by a simpering Patrick Wilson, is the only one who seems aware that Mavis is a hot mess. The rest of the town, populated by the likes of Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser and Mary Beth Hurt, figured Mavis was living it up in the big city. But the reality is that her life is so pathetic, and she’s really a monster — i.e., she doesn’t really even write, she just overhears teenagers talking in public places and transcribes their dialogue.
Both Mavis, and the audience, can find sympathy and a kind of relatability in Matt Freehauf, played by comedian Oswalt. He and Mavis used to be “locker buddies.” Now, they are drinking buddies. Though Matt realizes the ridiculousness of Mavis’ plan to reclaim Buddy, he plays along anyway, and forms a bond in the process. This strand of the plot, thankfully, is hardly touching, but instead, real and honest about human relationships and their ephemerality.
Cody, screenwriter of the precociously precious Juno for which she nabbed an Academy Award, and also writer of the recently capsized Showtime series “The United States of Tara,” is known by some for her stripper-narrative life-story than anything else.
But I don’t know much about that, and I care even less. What I know is that her screenplay for Young Adult is full of human flaws, hang-ups and wisdom. In this film, none of these characters are perfect and that doesn’t just go for Mavis, but Oswalt’s character too, who was crippled in a high school hate crime and now hoards action figures in the garage he lives in.
Deep readings aside, Young Adult also works simply as a bruising dark comedy full of unexpected gags. In one hilarious scene, Mavis, in her hungover stupor, saunters down the streets of Mercury as a car slowly pulls up next to her. Mavis looks at the car, lowers her sunglasses and says, “Oh hi, Mom.” Later, when she tries to tell her parents she’s an alcoholics, they only say, “That’s funny.”
Cody definitely knows a thing or two about dysfunctional family dynamics. Though the script veers in its third act, settling for the indie-dramedy-cop-out route of Ambiguity, I’d say this is more symptomatic of cinema today than anything else. Try and name an acclaimed film in 2011 that didn’t have an open ending. At least Young Adult doesn’t placate or pander.
Young Adult is directed by Jason Reitman, who has brought us Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air. This is his best film yet, because it isn’t issues-y and it doesn’t attempt to have any topical relevance. While “Up in the Air,” a highly-praised drama about human connection amid economic crisis that has started to age badly, “Young Adult” deserves that kind of attention.
As Mavis, Charlize Theron, always game to get ugly, is so good at playing awful, and so utterly heartbreaking — but never touchy-feely or heartwarming — that she becomes a lovable monster.