'Young Adult'

Philip V. Caruso/Paramount Pictures

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody concoct clever characters that deserve a bigger film.

A tart and 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. 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.

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, though 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, the happily married Buddy (Patrick Wilson), no matter that the first time she sees him on her visit, he's got a breast-milk pump in hand.

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, but despite her relative worldliness, Mavis is an emotionally immature adolescent with teenage priorities, prejudices and fantasies.

The second character of note, even more unusual, is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a 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 schlub 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 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.

On a scene-by-scene basis, Young Adult engages with its smart exchanges between characters who are well equipped with rough edges and raw nerves. But the plot, such as it is, has a short arc and almost exclusively consists of charting Mavis' strategy for luring back Buddy; 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.

Jumping into the deep end with an essentially unlikable 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 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, but neither the script nor Wilson provides much insight into how Buddy really feels. Young Adult, which has been directed 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 than a full canvas, a weekend jaunt rather than a real journey.

Release date Dec. 9 (Paramount)
Cast Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson
Director Jason Reitman
Screenwriter Diablo Cody
Director of photography Eric Steelberg
Rated PG-13, 93 minutes