It's taken screenwriter Diablo Cody (Showtime's United States of Tara) a few years to get the memo, but in her latest film, Young Adult, it looks as if she's started paying attention to some of the constructive criticism aimed straight at her hipster heart. Besides cutting back a bit on the forced pop-culture references, Cody seems to have also put the reigns on the gimmicky prose that marked her fresh albeit frustrating pro-choice dark comedy Juno back in 2007. She really has! Honest to blog!
Despite my own Juno-related cynicism, I still found the Academy Award winner a sweet coming-of-age story that would probably brighten my day if I came across it on cable. The extreme likeability of Ellen Page (Inception) in the title role overcame the overly smarty-pants dialogue. With Young Adult, however, Cody and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), who reunite for the first time since the prego indie, don't have that same advantage. Instead, Cody challenges both herself (and her audience) with a movie character as attractive on the inside as Michael Cera showing off his pasty chicken thighs in flimsy running shorts. It's not an easy task, but with some surprisingly refined writing, Cody proves in possession of more creativity and humor than her phony pen name would lead you to believe. (That is, of course, provided you disregard her misguided foray into the horror genre with Jennifer's Body as just a bad dream.)
In Young Adult, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron (Monster) stars as Mavis Gary, the kind of emotionally detached individual who doesn't swoon over babies or cry over breakups. Author of a young-adult book series (think Twilight Saga scribe Stephenie Meyer without the vamps), Mavis subsists on Diet Coke breakfasts and promiscuous sex inside her filthy bachelorette pad. She spends her time watching trashy reality TV and living vicariously through the naive teenie boppers she writes about inside the pages of her paperbacks.
Having never really matured past her high school years where she was both lauded as a queen bee and loathed as a "psychotic prom-queen bitch," Mavis enters into a delusional state of grandeur when she is included in a mass email from her ex-boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) about the birth of his new baby. Instead of simply hitting "reply" and offering congratulations, Mavis misreads the message from Buddy as a call for help and decides to pack up and pay him a visit back in her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. There, the cold, calculating and materialistic Mavis forms an unlikely acquaintance with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a dweeby former high school classmate she hardly remembers despite the fact his locker was right next to hers. As Matt, Oswalt gives a sincere and grounded performance much like he does in the lead role of 2007's scarcely-seen dark comedy Big Fan.
"Buddy Slade has a life," Matt says trying to dissuade Mavis from wrecking Buddy's happy marriage. In that, he's also suggesting that Mavis needs to get a life of her own, too. There is no epiphany or happy ending in Young Adult. Theron embraces her lack of congeniality with a remarkable combination of resentment, hostility, and self-hatred that is both uncomfortable and compelling, especially when the end result is such a colossal train wreck. •
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5)
Dir. Jason Reitman; writ. Diablo Cody; feat. Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins (R)