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.