Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, the director-writer duo behind 2007’s surprise hit “Juno,” re-team for the wickedly hilarious “Young Adult”, starring Charlize Theron as a prodigal Midwesterner who returns to her hometown from Minnesota’s Little Apple determined to win back her high school flame at any cost. The catch? He’s married, with a newborn baby.
Mavis Gary (Theron) is a recently divorced thirty-something living like a sloppy college freshman in a Minneapolis high-rise when she receives word of ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth’s (Elizabeth Reaser) new baby, and immediately decides that, new family be damned, she and Buddy are meant to be together. Packing up her fire-engine-red Mini Cooper, Mavis pops a relic mixtape from their courtship in the tape deck and hits the road for the small town she fought so hard to escape.
Disgust drips from Mavis’ face as she sneers at suburban life and its inhabitants while parading herself around as a successful author, though in reality she’s only the ghostwriter of a modestly popular series of young adult fiction books. And while Buddy seems cordial enough about his ex’s unexpected arrival, their other peers are less than welcoming and rightfully suspicious of Mavis’ motives. Former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), left crippled after a hate crime their senior year, is the only person who accepts Mavis for the deranged psychopath she is, and the two form an improbable friendship founded upon a mutual penchant for drowning life’s disappointments with liquor.
Like an overgrown version of the teen girls she writes about, Mavis shuffles around in jeans tucked into UGG’s, her face obscured by oversize sunglasses and toting a bag inhabited by a tiny Pomeranian slung over her shoulder. Sound familiar? At times “Young Adult” seems equal measures black comedy and parody of young women in contemporary society – i.e. the girls who worship the E! network and the celebrity industrial complex, and whose idea of happiness can probably be measured in USD. Throughout the film, Mavis unfailingly criticizes others for not being more like her, but either can’t see the flaws in her own life or simply chooses to overlook them.
To simply write Mavis off as a bitch is to discredit both Cody’s unflinching wit and Theron’s thespian ability to make such an unapologetically unlikable character appear three-dimensional. (The word also doesn’t even come close to encapsulating some of the deliciously appalling things the character does.) For Mavis occasionally reveals glimmers of humanity and weakness that seem to point to the more fundamental question of whether people actually change. Matt, for all his punctuated appearances, seems to bring out both the best and worst of her.
But despite amounting to a surprising meditation on what we might call the “modern” human condition (that of failed marriages, alcoholism, and one-night stands), “Young Adult” never quite manages to transcend the character study because stories about a person’s inability to change mean, well, just that. So while Reitman and Cody very nearly succeeded at producing a film centered on such a flamboyant antagonist, the story gradually loses steam as Mavis runs her course, thus leaving viewers looking for closure out to dry.