Review: ‘Young Adult’ offers misanthropic comedy with great roles for Theron, Oswalt

Wow.  Talk about mixing it up.

I think “Juno” gets a bum rap, which is a funny thing to say about a film that was both financially successful and critically awarded.  It’s true, though.  People beat up on the film in a reductive way, as if the only thing of note about it is the pop culture that seems to be the primary vocabulary of today’s youth and that was so much of a part of the way the characters in that film defined themselves when speaking.

I’ve always thought the second half of “Juno” is the better half, the stuff that deals with the way reality can often be at odds with the image we have of someone, and I think the best parts of “Jennifer’s Body” are the parts that get at some difficult, hard-to-discuss truths about the way women are pitted against each other in our culture and the way it can distort their notions of friendship, even amidst the blood and guts.

With this film, Diablo Cody’s voice finds its most refined presentation so far, stripped of anything you might be able to dismiss as a gimmick, and I think it will surprise anyone who thinks they have Cody or director Jason Reitman totally figured out.  Mavis Gary, played by Charlize Theron, is a character that tests any conventional wisdom about what is considered acceptable as the lead in a movie.  She’s a fairly empty person, awful and unable to understand or respect or reproduce normal social behavior.  She is the ghostwriter of a series of young adult books about high school, and one of the reasons she’s been so good at writing them is because she has never really allowed herself to mature past the person she was at what she sees as her own best moment, her high school years.

So when an e-mail arrives for her one morning announcing the birth of the baby of Buddy Slade and his wife Beth, it’s like a punch in the face for Mavis.  After all, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) was hers first, and that baby should have also been hers.  It’s enough to set off a crisis for Mavis, who decides that she’s going to “rescue” Buddy from his marriage by returning home to her small town and making herself available.  She knows that’s all it will take to ensure that Buddy will leave with her, finally free of the life that trapped him and the woman who tricked him into marriage.

Charlize Theron is stunning in the role of Mavis, and most of what I found most impressive about the performance is the attention to small detail, the way she inhabits the skin of Mavis without apologizing for her or trying to smooth away the rough edges of the character as imagined by Cody.  One of the things that is very true about Hollywood and the way films get made is that actors are often afraid to play people who are truly unlikeable.  The bigger the star, the more likely it is that they’re going to balk at playing something that will make the audience hate them.  That’s not to say that they shy away from bad guys or villains entirely, but they’ll always find a way to inject some sort of grace note, something that redeems the person.  Theron apparently didn’t get that memo, because Mavis is a richly detailed, carefully observed piece of shit.  She is emotionally damaged, and she doesn’t seem even moderately interested in getting better.  She wants what she wants, no matter what, and she has no thoughts of others that do not in some way involve what she wants from them.

Once she shows up in her small hometown, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), or as she refers to him, “the hate-crime guy.”  He was brutalized in high school at one point, and he’s been dealing with the emotional and physical scars ever since.  From the trailers, I imagined he would end up being the hilarious sounding board to Charlize, eventually helping her towards some important self-realization, because that’s the way that role would unfold in any typical cliched version of this story.  If you want to see Oswalt in a more conventional use of his talents, check him in the opening scenes from “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.”  That’s the acerbic profane razor-sharp comic that we’re used to.  Matt is something else.  He’s the guy who had the locker next to Mavis all through high school, and he remembers a very different version of her than the one she believes.  He lives with his sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe), and he’s a private person, a guy who carved a safe and quiet life for himself out of some pretty awful circumstances.  He is a sounding board to Mavis while she’s in town, but very few of their scenes end with punchlines.  He’s got nothing to lose when it comes to Mavis, and so he speaks to her without any filter, without any reservation.  The relationship that develops between them is blunt and based largely on alcohol and frank talk, and I really love the energy of the scenes between them.

Patrick Wilson is also really strong in the movie, and I love the way Cody’s written Buddy Slade.  The name suggests a guy who encapsulates everything awful about small-town high school, like he’d be one of the bad teens from “Stand By Me” or “Christine.”  But as played by Wilson, he’s a normal guy, comfortable in his work, deeply connected to his family, happy in his marriage.  His wife Beth is played by Elizabeth Reaser, and she’s lovely in the movie, warm and grounded, a perfect match for Buddy.  Even in the few moments we see from their marriage, there’s a real life suggested, a great contrast to the daily routine that seems to be killing Mavis at the beginning of the film.

I watched most of the film gripped by a sort of full-body cringe, horrified by what was happening.  I think there’s an almost unbearable amount of tension involved in the idea that we’re watching this delusional, miserable asshole sweep back into the lives of people who are long since done with her, wreaking havoc without any sense of self-awareness.  She is Godzilla, stomping her way through an emotional Tokyo, and I particularly loved the way she would channel her real-life frustrations into the book she’s working on.  It’s hard to have a character in a film be a writer and to create convincing examples of their work within the work.  Here, Cody absolutely nails the tone of the “Sweet Valley High” fare she’s poking fun at, and I can see why Mavis would have been just right to write dozens of these books.  Her arrested adolescence is enabled by her work, encouraged even, and she has a voice that is perfect for the protagonist of the series.  The idea that the series is coming to a close is a undercurrent to this crisis, something that’s driving her to reckless actions in the real world to make up for the loss of this fantasy world where she’s been able to keep living this moment.

Special mention must be made of Collette Wolfe, who has been doing very good work in films like “The Foot Fist Way,” “Observe and Report,” and on shows like “Cougar Town” as well.  But here, she gives one of those supporting performances that make you reassess them completely, and in two short scenes, she suggests an entire life of desire and repressed feeling and furious sublimation.  Mavis spends this entire film talking about how she’s making this romantic gesture and she’s doing something brave by reaching out to the person she’s always felt like she should be with, and when she’s confronted with the real thing, someone actually doing that, she doesn’t recognize it at all.  Wolfe’s big scene really is the beating heart of the film, a human moment that still doesn’t excuse or subdue the toxic nature of Mavis and her journey.  That’s not easy, and it is impressive in the writing, the directing, and the performances from all involved.

“Young Adult” is not an easy film.  It’s not a pleasant film.  But I think it’s a pretty great film, and the best way to approach it is by dropping all expectation of what it is “supposed” to be.  I wish I didn’t recognize any of myself in Mavis Gary, and I wish I didn’t understand the wildly self-destructive qualities that define her.  I think the film reaches for something very dark and hard and real, and the degree to which it accomplishes that is impressive.  I can imagine “Young Adult” will be intensely disliked by just as many people as it is loved by, and that’s a sign of just how uncompromised it is.

“Young Adult” opens in limited release December 9, 2011, then opens wider on December 16.