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A tart, abrasive character study of a seriously messed up writer who pens a twisted new episode to her own life, the pungent Young Adult feels like a chapter in what by rights should be a longer film or novel. As if deliberately setting out to make something less warm and friendly than his genial first three features, Jason Reitman reunites here with his Juno cohort Diablo Cody on a smartly observed, well acted but narrowly conceived story about a deluded author of teen novels who plots to win back her high school boyfriend, who’s now a happily married dad.
Deftly done in every respect, this Paramount release, which oddly bypassed the fall festival circuit, is much closer in feel to an indie-style film than to a major studio production, making it a curious choice for a Christmas launch. Okay commercial results look likely.
Entirely avoiding the sort of trademark showy dialogue that made her name on Juno, Cody most distinguishes herself here by creating two unusual characters of a kind rarely seen front and center in a mainstream film. The first is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a stunning woman who will be 40 before long, still hasn’t gotten her life together and would be considered, by most reckonings, a condescending, first-class bitch.
Living alone in a messy high-rise apartment in downtown Minneapolis, Mavis has been ghostwriting entries for an adolescent novel series for years, although this looks to be winding down. She’s a divorcee who can get guys when she wants but, when the excuse arrives to return to her small Minnesota hometown, she concocts a scheme to reclaim the glory that was hers as a teenager by luring away her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), no matter that the first time she sees him on her visit, he’s got a breast milk pump in hand.
Dolled up or not, Mavis is still a knockout, perceived by locals as a glamorous success who hasn’t changed at all since school days. She loathes the banality of the town and part of the early-stage humor stems from the dressed-to-kill Mavis having to frequent chicken-and-ribs-type sports bar restaurants, the best the town has to offer. Despite her relative worldliness, Mavis is still an emotionally immature adolescent, with teenage priorities, prejudices and fantasies.
The second character of note, even more unusual, is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former high school classmate to whom she says, upon encountering him in a bar, “You’re the hate crime guy!” A caustic sad sack with a chip on his shoulder as large as Mavis’ sense of superiority, Matt relates how he was bullied and ultimately beaten up and left for dead by a bunch of jocks because they thought he was gay. The irony, he says, is that he isn’t gay but, since then, he hasn’t been good for much of anything, in that he’s permanently crippled and bent out of shape, physically and mentally.
Here, then, are the polar opposites of the high school experience, the babe with the highest self-esteem and the shlub with the lowest, both of whom remain emotionally stunted, basically where they were 20 years before. Such characters — the snooty mean queen and the razzed geek — are staples of teen pictures but are rarely seen as older people still carrying the same baggage. These two had nothing in common back then but now can really talk because they get one another and are willing to be frank; he calls her on her b.s. and she accuses him of using his disabilities as an excuse for doing nothing. Their scenes together are the film’s best, with Theron and Oswalt, who have very different tempi and temperatures as performers, parrying and thrusting with great expertise.
The way Mavis behaves with Buddy, somebody should dub her shameless Mavis. Meeting his nice wife Beth (Elisabeth Reaser), Mavis goes on about how she and Buddy used to be together; alone with him, she recalls how great things were in the old days and acts as though there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick up where they left off. Buddy just sort of smiles uncomfortably through it all to be nice, which only leaves the door wider open for Mavis to keep pushing her increasingly misguided agenda.
Aggravating an already bad situation is her alcoholism. “Do you want to get loaded or something?”
Mavis demands of Matt after one of her “dates” with Buddy, which is par for the course with her. There have undoubtedly been many times in the past when men have been very happy to hear her say something like this and there’s no question she’s lively, provocative company when she’s had a couple of belts. But Mavis doesn’t know when to stop, so it’s only after she completely embarrasses herself in a petulant, self-pitying public rant, that she has something like an epiphany that might help point the way for her to move forward.
On a scene-by-scene basis, Young Adult entirely engages with its smart exchanges between characters who are well equipped with rough edges and raw nerves. Mavis and Matt undergo some key life changes as well, providing some dramatic movement. But the plot, such as it is, has a very short arc and almost exclusively consists of charting Mavis’s strategy for luring Buddy back; there are no subplots or side excursions, just the surprising bonding that occurs between Mavis and Matt. The result is an impression of vibrant character sketches rather than of full-bodied drama with depth and complexity, of two characters, specifically, who could easily warrant far more extensive treatment, so acutely and specifically drawn are they.
Of the supporting characters, the only particularly interesting one is Matt’s sister Sandra (a very good Collette Wolfe), a plain woman who, living with her brother, has no life, has always idolized Mavis and inadvertently makes some comments that alter the course of things.
Jumping into the deep end with an essentially unlikeable character who is nonetheless compelling and sometimes great fun to watch, Theron is terrific. She makes Mavis’ arrogance and certainty of her own allure not only convincing but enjoyable. When her behavior becomes pathetic and pitiable, however, there’s no feeling of deserved comeuppance, just relief that going too far will finally provoke her to pull herself together.
Oswalt, the stand-up comic who was excellent in Big Fan two years back, excels again here, exposing just enough of Matt’s life of hurt under his bracingly jaundiced gab.
Neither the script nor Wilson provides much insight into how Buddy really feels (or felt) about Mavis, a woman whose literary exercises and life experiences have blurred in ways quite likely helpful to neither. Young Adult, which has been directed with acute insight by Reitman with heightened attention to the way people behave when they’re alone, is good as far as it goes, but it feels more like a snapshot that a full canvas, a weekend jaunt rather than a real journey.
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