Juno writer Diablo Cody and that movie’s director Jason Reitman reunite for this deadpan delight that plays like a thirtysomething update featuring three high school archetypes from the John Hughes universe. What makes the movie special is that the viewpoint character isn’t a former underappreciated outsider, but a one-time prom queen who wants a second chance with the guy who got away. The result is a flick that falls somewhere between Juno‘s bittersweet cynicism and the reluctant sentimentality of grown-up romance in Reitman’s Up in the Air.
Charlize Theron shines as the alternately preposterous, predatory, pathetic and unexpectedly poignant Mavis Gary, the 37-year-old divorced ghostwriter of paperback teenage romances known in the industry as “young adult” novels. The former uber-popular golden girl of suburban Mercury, Minnesota — where everyone else is “fat and dumb,” according to one resident — now lives in a Minneapolis high-rise, has a miniature dog named Dolce and drives a Mini Cooper. Her personal life is similarly minimal, until an e-mailed photo of her ex-boyfriend’s new baby inspires her to try heisting hubby for herself.
Her prey is Buddy Slade, played with ridiculously wholesome nice-guy charm by Patrick Wilson. But in classic adolescent dramedy fashion, the more interesting male lead is the quirky, funny and Jiminy-Cricket-honest misfit who becomes Mavis’ unlikely confidant. Patton Oswalt is tongue-in-cheek terrific as Matt “The Hate Crime Guy” Freehauf, a former classmate who got his nickname after taking a beating from jocks who mistakenly assumed he was gay. He still uses an arm-brace cane and has a permanently bent Little Matt as a result of the attack, spending his spare time these days distilling homemade Star Wars-named bourbon and assembling action-figure models.
Mavis drunkenly reveals her man-stealing plan to Matt during a chance meeting at a bar on her first night back in her hometown. Matt’s honest enough to tell her that what she’s doing is wrong, but becomes her go-to confessor each time she hits a setback. “I’m crazy and nobody loves me,” Mavis complains after a particularly embarrassing incident. “Guys like me are born loving girls like you,” Matt matter-of-factly admits.
Theron is excellent at getting us to sympathize with a needy, selfish and vain character who is a genuinely terrible person. She’s perfectly imperfect in every way, expressing distaste for babies, her family and even the idea of teaching poor schoolchildren in Cambodia. Reminded by her ex of the nickname she used for Matt during high school, she blithely replies that “‘theater fag’ is an expression, Buddy.”
Reitman’s quietly low-key direction allows that kind of offbeat humor to work better than if the scenes were played for broad laughs. And when Mavis has to deliver the traditional Soul-Baring Public Meltdown found in nearly every teen soap opera, the utterly unironic way Theron’s performance is shot makes it a genuinely moving display.
One of the most clever and heartfelt comedies of the year, Young Adult could get Theron her second Oscar nomination, and maybe even her second win.
[Rating: 4 stars]
Young Adult is released on Friday December 9, 2011