Gorgeous but damaged, conceited yet self-loathing, Charlize Theron dares you to like her in "Young Adult" — and the movie itself dares you to stick with an anti-heroine who makes no apologies for her deplorable behavior.
It's an exciting thing to see, this willful rejection of tidy character arcs and happy endings, and it actually makes you wish "Young Adult" had been even further fleshed out and gone on a little longer. This is not something we say about a movie very often.
In reteaming with "Juno" director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody dials down the snark that marked the Oscar-winning script that made her a superstar in her own right. She's actually created the anti-Juno in a lot of ways while managing to retain much of the directness, the sharply-drawn characters and the casual poignancy that are her signatures.
Theron's Mavis Gary is as verbal as Juno MacGuff was, but rather than finding the perfect, clever quip at all times, she usually manages to say the rudest, most inappropriate thing. Rather than being mature and wise beyond her years, she's in a state of arrested development, emotionally stuck at the place where she peaked: high school. Where she was the prom queen, naturally. Theron continues to show her versatility, hurling herself headlong into this unhinged character. There are shadings of Nicole Kidman in "To Die For" here; she'll make you squirm, but she may make you feel a little sorry for her, too.
Externally, Mavis hasn't changed a bit since her glory days; she's still the statuesque blonde everyone worshipped and feared. But inside, she's a disaster. Divorced, she lives in a messy Minneapolis high-rise apartment with her neglected Pomeranian and writes a series of teen lit books called "Waverley Prep," clearly modeled after the revered "Sweet Valley High," which Cody herself has been working on turning into a film. The gig is about to end and Mavis is having trouble writing the final installment, especially since she wakes up hung over every morning.
One day, she finds unexpected inspiration in a forwarded email. Seems her high-school sweetheart, football player Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and his wife, fellow classmate Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), have announced the arrival of their baby girl. Mavis becomes obsessed with the notion that she and Buddy are meant to be together after all these years and returns home to pry him away from his family.
In the vein of Alexander Payne, Reitman finds just the right affectionately mocking tone in taking some jabs at small-town Midwestern life. Mercury, Minn., is full of awfully decent folks who seem content with their quiet lives, their fast-food chains, their mediocre sports bar. The bland Buddy is one of them, but nostalgia is a powerful thing, so Mavis still views him as a golden god — and the key to her happiness. Wilson plays on his "prom king" persona from "Little Children," but with a twist: he's a little scruffy, a little paunchy, something we can see clearly but Mavis can't through her haze of delusion and bourbon.
The other figure from high school who has an impact on her during her visit is the nerdy, tubby Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who dwelled on the opposite end of the social spectrum and, like Mavis, remains trapped there physically and emotionally. Matt suffered serious injuries back then when the jocks tried to gay-bash him (he's actually straight); 20 years later, when Mavis runs into him at a bar, she still refers to him as "the hate-crime guy." But he ends up calling her on her cruelty, her insanity, and the two form an unlikely bond in just a brief time.
Oswalt may be best known for his stand-up comedy and his voice work in "Ratatouille," but he's excellent here in a more dramatic role, as he was in the little-seen indie "Big Fan". He's the heart of the film, the anchor, the voice of reason, but there's nothing smug or self-righteous about him. Matt is as stunted as Mavis is, which Oswalt conveys in subtle, heartbreaking ways that always ring true.
You come to care about his character so much, you'd like to see more of a resolution for him than "Young Adult" provides — perhaps not a happy ending, which is fine, but at least another chapter.
"Young Adult," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.