Can a great movie be about a terrible person? The tenet of traditional screenwriting is that audiences need a relatable protagonist. Even jerks have to be compelling or charismatic, and ultimately change. But, what if they don't? What happens when they just suck?
Young Adult tries to figure this out in a whip-like 94 minutes, within the framework of a traditional romantic comedy to boot. Backed by scribe Diablo Cody, with whom director Jason Reitman hasn't worked since 2007's Juno, it's a also a risky departure from the lighthearted humor of hamburger phones and cross-country thigh huggers. Reitman and Cody gamble big time, and it pays off.
Young Adult: Patrick Wilson and Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a divorcee and former prom queen with a taste for bourbon and deluded teenage fantasies. She's living out single life in Minneapolis – the "Mini Apple" to mostly everybody she knows from Mercury, her small Minnesota town – while writing a vapid, young-adult fiction series when she gets a baby announcement from Buddy (Patrick Wilson), a high school flame. To Mavis, it's a cry for help, a message that he's "trapped" in a suburban marriage. She hops in her car, ditching the one-night stand dozing in her bed, and heads home to win Buddy back.
Except there's one problem: Not a flicker of redemption exists in Young Adult, only Mavis's fucked-up Gossip Girl fairy tales.
The plan is a spectacularly bad one, as just about any sensible person knows. The thing is, Mavis has no sense. (Or shame, for that matter.) She's forever knocking back booze, rarely sober, and often scrubbing away last night's grime at day spas and nail salons. It's delusion of the highest grandeur, a half-witted ploy better suited for one of her books than her future. Yet, she's trapped in it. High school immaturity fueled Mavis's route out of Mercury, and with little to show for it, now it's slung her backward.
Still, the story of a husband-stealing alcoholic makes not a good movie alone. Young Adult doesn't truly shine until it introduces Matt (Patton Oswalt), an alleged deadbeat with a limp courtesy of crowbar-wielding jocks way back when. Matt's a godsend, offering a foil to Mavis's high school hang-ups without enabling her. He's the only person who doesn't hesitate to tell her the truth, which is to say, "You are mentally fucking ill."
Of course, she doesn't listen to him. This is a movie about someone who's supremely unlikeable, the exponential product of raising beauty and ego to the agonizing degree – if she listened, we'd feel compelled to root for her. Nonetheless, interesting bits are simmering under the surface. Cody's created an incredibly difficult character in Mavis, a complex vixen who seems to be peering over the edge of a cliff, only to look up and decide she likes the view where she's standing. She's seemingly aware of her failures, but plunges into fantasy rather than address them. That her cinematic comeuppance isn't satisfying, or even resolute, should be a mark against the script – especially because most plot details flutter in and out with little heft – yet when it finally happens, it isn't.
With such an off-putting goal, though, it's impressive how much good stuff gets packed into Young Adult. Theron is capital-B Brilliant as Mavis, mining an impressive range of emotions through her body language. During one scene of note, while she's watching Buddy's wife (Elizabeth Reaser) jam out to their old song, Teenage Fanclub's überhip "The Concept," she's momentarily shocked, then stewing, then scheming – all vividly, and all without saying a word. And beside her, Oswalt manages to stand out and impress, working a sensitive bravado against her gruff flourishes. Their performances are certainly not to be enjoyed, but they're sure as hell appreciated.
That's the trick of Young Adult, living somewhere in the undefined between entertainment and anguish. Reitman and Cody want it to awe, I'm sure – it's just tough to decide if it's got some, or if it's just full of it.