Charlize Theron plays a vicious, determinedly immature mega-jerk in Young Adult, a wonderfully caustic comedy by Diablo Cody.
I liked Juno and even Jennifer’s Body but Cody has truly found the magic with Young Adult. It is her evil masterpiece.
Mavis Gary (Theron) is a ghostwriter of sorts (her name is not the big famous one on the outside of the book; it’s the one under “story by” on the inside) for a series of teen books called Waverly Prep and is living in an apartment in Minneapolis. Recently divorced and facing the end of the series, Mavis is already in a funk when the emotional straw that breaks the camel’s back of whatever sanity she may have had arrives in her email inbox. Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), an ex-boyfriend from back in her small town of Mercury, Minnesota, and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had their first child. Mavis broods on this photo, in between a breakfast of Diet Coke and an always-on TV set to E!’s reality shows, and eventually comes to the decision that the thing to do is to return to Mercury and win back Buddy.
Hey, why not.
She leaves Minneapolis (with a sleeping one-night-stand still in her bed, no less) and arrives in town with her tiny dog to set up camp in a Hampton Suites. She leaves a message for Buddy — claiming to be in town for a real estate thing — and then prepares for a night on the town. After putting on too much eye makeup and a just-this-side-of-trampy outfit, she heads to a local bar preparing to meet Buddy. He calls to set up a meeting for the next night but while at the bar she runs in to Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a still geeky guy she went to high school with whose nickname and physical disabilities spring from an incident in his teens that left him on crutches and known as “the hate crime guy.” Freehauf may still have the physical scars from high school but it quickly becomes clear that it’s Mavis who is still stuck in her teenage years. She has decided, based on nothing, that Buddy still wants her and that they are meant to be and that she, with enough eyeliner, slutty tops and remember-when stories, can get him back.
Matt suggests she seek professional help; we in the audience agree.
When she does meet up with Buddy, he gives the impression of being not a man ponder divorce but just a slightly harried, slightly dopey new dad who is vaguely happy to chat about old times with an old friend. Perhaps because some part of him likes Mavis’ aggressive flirtation, he even invites her to come to a show for Beth’s band, Nipple Confusion, and doesn’t seem completely unresponsive when he drunkenly allows Mavis to kiss him.
But we, and Matt Freehauf, know better. We can sense that when Mavis tells her parents — mom Hedda (Jill Eikenberry) and dad David (Richard Bekins) — that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, it’s probably the first honest thing she’s said since she returned to Mercury. Whatever subconscious thrill Buddy may be getting from Mavis’ affections is greatly outweighed by the fact that he’s mostly oblivious to them. Mavis’ reaction to pretty much everything about her home town is a kind of “gag me with a spoon” pose, one that most people in their late 30s might express (if it came to them at all) with a discreet eye-rollat most but one that Mavis still telegraphs with all the bitchy callowness of the 16-year-old mean girl she undoubtedly was.
I can’t overstate how pitch perfect this movie is. From the 1990s music to the clips of the crying, shame-free D-list celebrities who populate a certain kind of reality show to the unrelenting smack-worthy horribleness of Mavis, Young Adult hits its targets with breathtaking precision. Like a 14-year-old’s creative writing project, Mavis’ narration of the final book of the Waverly Prep series is a wonderfully ridiculous version of her own life, with the Mavis stand-in simply a beautiful, perfect victim of others’ jealousy.
Do you get Oscars for playing not a physically transformed serial killer but an emotionally stunted super-bitch? Something tells me the serious Oscar voters won’t see Mavis as quite the tour de force of Theron’s role in Monster but I personally think it might be her best role ever. Like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Young Adult does not let its characters hug or learn. Mavis isn’t ultimately a hurt fluffy bunny under a prickly surface — she is an awful, messed-up wretch who is in actuality much shallower than she appears. She is everyone’s worst instincts and most immature thoughts — and Theron gives us a Mavis who is obliviously yet proudly that awful.
And yet for such a loathsome character, she is a delight to watch. Perhaps it’s because her horribleness is only an exaggerated version of the vile person that we all potentially contain within. If you lived one place as a teen and moved someplace else as an adult, you (by which, of course, I mean me) can be horrified to meet up with someone who knew you when and realize, from the things they talk about or the way they treat you, what a schmuck you must have been. Here, we realize how awful a young Mavis must have been — and how she clearly hasn’t changed — and can enjoy the Seinfeldian there-but-for-the-grace-of-God humor that results. A
Rated R for language and some sexual content. Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, Young Adult is an hour an 34 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It opens Friday, Dec. 16.