Film Review: Charlize Theron shines in dark, odd 'Young Adult'

Charlize Theron stars   in 'Young Adult,' which reunites director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures

Charlize Theron stars in "Young Adult," which reunites director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

"Young Adult" reunites director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, creators of the much-lauded 2007 surprise hit, "Juno."

It's fun to imagine how much the protagonists of these two films would hate each other, even if they both represent aspects of Cody's personality. Ellen Page's precocious high-school misfit would sneer at the teen-market "Waverly Prep" novels ghostwritten by the new film's Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), while Mavis wouldn't need much provocation to dump a Maker's Mark over Juno's ironic head.

Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature, returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high ...

Rating: R for language and some sexual content

Length: 94 minutes

Released: December 9, 2011 Limited

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser, J.K. Simmons

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Diablo Cody

More info and showtimes »

"Young Adult" is an unusual and ultimately sour film that makes no attempt to ingratiate itself with those moviegoers who expect a Charlize Theron "comedy" to be likable. Its condescending attitude toward "unsophisticated" suburban mainstream society, with its chain restaurants and sports bars, is not balanced by its recognition of its heroine's unattractive (yet romanticized) self-pity. But in the persons of Theron and screen sidekick Patton Oswalt, "Young Adult" contains two of the best performarnces of 2011, which is a credit to Cody's dialogue as well as to the actors.

One of the more memorable characters of the movie year, Theron's Mavis Gary is a divorced, alcoholic, seriously depressed 37-year-old "psychotic prom-queen bitch" (in the words of an ex-classmate). She is no longer the star she was in high school. She's attractive, but worn and weary.

We are introduced to Mavis at an apparent low point in her life, as she struggles to write her final Young Adult series novel. Instead of working, she lounges around her Minneapolis apartment in her sweats, watching reality television and chugging Diet Coke straight from the two-liter plastic bottle. She's a pretty awful person, which makes her interesting to watch, even if Reitman shoots these scenes in the intimate, deadpan manner of a more typical "indie" film.

Inspired by a baby announcement, Mavis returns to her small, square "hick lake town" of Mercury, Minn., on a stealth mission to steal her old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), from his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and the couple's newborn infant. She reasons that Buddy is "a hostage" to domesticity who needs to be liberated.

In Mercury, Mavis, being a published author, is "a pretty big deal compared to the rest of us," as one resident comments. She's also still famous for her teenage beauty and popularity. (She won "Best Hair" in the high school hall of fame.) Her coy meanness is shocking. Inside the Slade household, she says to Beth: "I like your decor. Is it shabby chic?"

Drinking at a local bar, Mavis encounters a barely remembered classmate, Matt Freehauf (Oswalt), a wry, troll-like geek who lives at home with his sister and requires a cane to walk. Mavis only remembers Matt because of his famous injuries: He was the high-school "hate crime guy," severely beaten by jocks who suspected he was gay. The still-smitten Matt becomes Mavis' confidante, although he rightly diagnoses that Mavis is, essentially, insane. "Buddy Slade has a life," he warns Mavis. "No, Buddy Slade has a baby," she counters. "Babies are boring."

Unlike Reitman's previous films, "Juno" and even "Up in the Air," "Young Adult" is no crowd-pleaser. It lacks not only redemption but a satisfying ending; one senses the filmmakers weren't sure how to resolve their nerve-fraying premise or their conflicted feelings for their nasty heroine.

Reitman and Cody miscalculate during the final act with an unnecessary and unpersuasive public confession-confrontation- and-humiliation scene at the baby's "naming party." This is followed by a conversation that perhaps was therapeutic for Cody to write, in which a Mercury non-entity provides dark affirmation for Mavis' behavior and life choices. The self-justification is epic. A pat and predictable cut to black ends the film, to suggest Mavis will pay for her sins, but the promise of punishment seems as calculated and insincere as a politician's public apology.

"Young Adult" is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

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