In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, one of the most loathsome human beings to ever walk the Earth in couture high heels. She’s a semi-successful young adult novelist renowned for a series of books written for teenage girls about high school society, a franchise that is on its last legs. One day, she receives an email from her old high school boyfriend (played with infinite patience by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his new baby. Suddenly, she decides that the child should have been hers, and she travels back to her small hometown to break up his marriage and hijack him for herself.
This is Jason Reitman’s first feature where the protagonist learns nothing about herself –surprising, since he re-teams with Diablo Cody, who penned the winning and adorable Juno. Ellen Page’s Juno found love in a hopeless place while George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham discovered there’s more to life than airline mileage in Up in the Air.
Not the case in Young Adult. Mavis Gary starts the movie as a class “A” bitch and ends the movie as a class “A” bitch. By the completion of this character study, she’s still an alcoholic shrew with no chance of redemption, existing in her own little skewed universe of immature, arrested development. Granted, we discover a little about her that we should pity, but it definitely isn’t enough to pardon her lifestyle. If anything, she’s like a homeless person on Hotel Street–we just want to step over her and get as far away as possible.
Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, Big Fan) plays the one guy in town willing to put up with Mavis. He recognizes her in a bar as the most beautiful girl in high school. She recognizes him as the guy who got beat up by the jocks for being gay–even though he isn’t gay. “You’re the hate crime guy!” she exclaims. Oswalt’s shlubby, geeky, fluffy performance is touching and also serves the gargantuan task of giving the audience someone they can take pleasure in and root for. In a less competitive year, he might have been nominated for a supporting actor Oscar simply because he manages to make Theron’s character endurable.
The marketing execs in Hollywood got it wrong: this movie, not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is the “feel-bad movie of the year.” Connoisseurs of cringe-cinema will love the uncomfortable, awkward situations Mavis gets herself into and the stunned reactions from the people she genuinely offends, but even Michael Scott from The Office will find her irredeemable.
In this sense, Young Adult may be too well made and perceptive a film to actually enjoy. One day Mavis will not wake up face-down in bed from a night filled with straight bourbon because she will have suffocated on her own vomit. And the secondary moral of the film is something we all probably know too well already: You can never go back to high school and you’re a moron if you want to. Move on.