Charlize Theron plays a rare Hollywood character: the unlikable person who stays unlikable
On the surface, Young Adult has a lot in common with Juno, the previous film from the team of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. There’s the small town Minnesota setting, the sharp dialogue and the insights into how people act when they're put under stress.
At the same time, the film superficially recalls Garden State and a host of other films about Gen X identity crises, as floundering young-adult-fiction writer Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) returns to her hometown on a desperate quest to reconnect with her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is now a married father.
But Young Adult is an entirely different beast, and significantly departs from the films it outwardly resembles. Where most of its counterparts opt for cohesive, sentimental storytelling arcs, Cody’s script hews closer to real life. At its core, there’s a depressing yet inescapable truth: People don’t fundamentally change.
That’s a radical idea, at least by Hollywood's standards. In its disregard for what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” Young Adult rejects the usual mandate to produce movies with the widest possible appeal. It’s also what makes this such a fascinating, if flawed, enterprise, an exercise in a new form of nihilistic horror.
Mavis is one of those people who peaked in high school and has been floundering ever since. The ex-prom queen lives alone in a Minneapolis apartment, where she spends her time feeling sorry for herself, downing two-liter bottles of diet coke, and sleeping in front of the television. She’s pushing 40, unhappy with her career and emotionally adrift.
With a machine-like focus and steadfast resolve, Mavis decides that the only way to recapture her vanished sense of self-worth is to reconnect with the happily married Buddy and steal him from his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).
The movie has empathy for Mavis and her plight, of course. There’d be no point in making it if it didn't. But Cody has written a fundamentally unappealing character, a woman who compensates for her deep self-disgust by manipulating everyone in her path, plowing ahead with an almost total disregard for the needs and desires of other people.
It’s a brave, challenging part, a monster of a different sort than the Monster that won Theron an Academy Award. Unsurprisingly, the consistently top-notch actress is up for the task, revealing the deep cracks in Mavis’s fragile psyche. In Theron’s hands, the character’s immature high school affectations—waving shots around in a bar, aggressively flirting with Buddy, looking at a baby like it’s a terrifying alien—come from a convincing, unhappy place. It’s a full-throttle, full-body performance, with everything from the slightest twitch to the most overstated reaction of disgust revealing a woman stuck in severely arrested development.
Reitman smartly underplays things, opting for an observational tack that lets Cody’s script and his terrific lead do the talking. He doesn’t attempt a grand social statement, and there are no attention-seeking stylistic flourishes. Instead, Reitman imbues the film with a violent, darkly comic sensibility, burrowing full-throttle into the mind of a woman who’s too proud to recognize all that she’s lost and all that she still stands to lose.
Living inside Mavis’s head isn’t the most appealing proposition. It’s an uncomfortably deluded place, imbued with an aggressively misguided value system. She’s preoccupied with endless primping and grooming, and is most at home when she’s inebriated or putting down others, feeding an ego that needs constant refreshment.
The movie might have left a greater visceral impact had Reitman and Cody decided to make it about her awakening to the errors of her ways and gaining a renewed sense of what’s really important. There’s not much emotional weight to the proceedings because the character is such a nightmarish concoction of negativity.
But that happier version of Young Adult would have been a much less notable achievement. Even with a subplot that doesn’t really work, involving Mavis’s friendship with former high-school outcast Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), Reitman and Cody have made a big studio prestige picture that provides a realistic look at the darkest impulses of an unlikable character.
It trades in discomfort and unease, not catharsis. That’s an achievement worthy of admiration, if you can endure it.