Another triumphant performance by Charlize Theron informs and enhances the otherwise uneven Young Adult, an edgy and sometimes disappointing drama about contemporary neuroses with comic undertones from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the team responsible for the surprise 2007 hit, Juno. It’s not in the same league as Reitman’s hugely superior Up in the Air, but Theron, a true beauty and one of the screen’s most exquisite actors, keeps the film airborne even when it seems dangerously earthbound. She’s a one-woman Emergency Rescue Squad.
Interesting, no? I mean the way great-looking actors will do everything they can to hide their camera-ready perfection? In her ugliest transformation, she disfigured herself to play lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) and not only saved the movie but won herself an Oscar in the bargain.
The success and praise must have rubbed off. In Young Adult, she rarely wears makeup, her hair is an unmade bed, and the wardrobe looks like it came from a Black Friday sale at K-Mart. But she is mesmerizing as Mavis Gary, an obsessive-compulsive ghost writer of the kind of bare-chested “young adult” pulp fiction they display in airport departure lounges, who is so depressed she can barely crawl out of bed in the morning. Somehow Mavis manages to climb into her car and drive from her apartment in Minneapolis to her sad, boring little home town of Mercury, Minn., on a mission: to re-stake her claim on an old high school boyfriend named Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is now married with a new baby.
Mercury is one of those dead ends of Midwestern highway ambience well worth escaping—populated by Staples and Home Depots, with a Taco Bell, KFC and Chili’s, all in the same building—get the picture? So it is immediately obvious why Mavis left town, although her ambition seems to have flatlined immediately. She’s a deplorable flop in life (unhappily divorced, no kids) and work. Even when she brags about her glamorous success as a novelist it’s a sham, since her romance series has been canceled due to lack of interest and she doesn’t know where her next paycheck is coming from. But she’s hell-bent on re-capturing whatever appeal she once had to seduce Buddy again, oblivious to the fact that he’s happily settled into the role of hick-town husband and father and scarcely even remembers her. After checking into a sterile room in a characterless Hampton Inn, she finds his phone number and makes a date for old time’s sake. Oddly, she also accidentally runs into—and ends up spending more time in the company of—a fat geek (Patton Oswalt) who has been crippled for life by a high school gay-bashing experience.
When she finally meets her beloved teen lover Buddy, he’s a square who talks about changing diapers and adoring his wife who plays drums in a female rock band called Nipple Confusion. Nothing Mavis does to distract him from his creepy routine or besotted loyalty works, but that does not deter her from saying all the wrong things, going so far as to tell his wife, “Buddy used to sleep in T-shirts and boxer shorts—I still have some of them.” Treating Buddy to a round of tequila shots in a local bar, she purrs, “I think that’s the song that was playing the first time I went down on you.”
As she proved with her controversial script for Juno, Cody specializes in unusual characters who say unexpected things at their own peril. Even when she tries new nail polishes and hair styles, Mavis looks bewildered in her desperate attempts to impress. She also gorges on junk food, chug-a-lugs Maker’s Mark and feels awful. She’s a lonely, confused, melancholy 37-year-old mess, clinging to the past to camouflage the fact that her present is lacking and the future looks even bleaker. Her career is a sham, and the damaged Matt, the lost soul she bonds with, paints figurines of action-comics heroes in lieu of no career at all.
The movie is about people whose lives have not worked out as hoped, who never lived up to their potential, and ended up pathetic adults. The results are not always rooted in logic. Going to bed together out of mutual boredom and misery does not ring true for either Mavis or Matt. Her relentless pursuit of a married man who shows no interest in her whatsoever is equally unimaginable. The screenplay is episodic and fragmented—I loved the actress, but didn’t believe the character.
Mavis is an emotionally undeveloped child-woman who does not relate to the time when women had obligations as women. Eschewing marriage, motherhood, manners and politically correctness, she has no obligations to herself, either. This is the film’s biggest problem. The more she rejects inductive reasoning, organized thinking and common sense, the more she alienates the viewer and the less we care about her or what happens next.
In the end, Mavis learns nothing redeemable about how to improve her life, and I, for one, felt cheated. This is not a reason to miss Young Adult. It’s a fatiguing low-key character study that drags along annoyingly and pleads for patience, but stick with it and you’ll find the engrossing centerpiece performance by Theron a captivating reward that is well worth the effort.