By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
As adults go, she’s about as young as they get.
She’s the focal character in Young Adult, a perverse dramedy about a 37-year-old who epitomizes the anti in antiheroine.
Charlize Theron, in her first major role in three years, stars as Mavis Gary, a lonely, hard-drinking, divorced ghostwriter of a series of books for young adults; that is, for tween girls.
But it turns out that her readers are, their ages notwithstanding, no less emotionally mature than she is.
Then, in her company-loving misery, she gets an e-mailed birth announcement informing her that her high school sweetheart — her flame back in her prom-queen glory days — and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had their first baby.
So she decides, especially in the light of the writer’s block that she seems to have rammed into, to return to her hometown of tiny Mercury, Minnesota, in hopes of destroying the marriage of Buddy (Patrick Wilson), whom she still considers the love of her life and whose newborn daughter he can always discard like an out-of-fashion sweatshirt.
You can describe what she does when she arrives in Mercury — where many of the townsfolk whom she considers hicks consider her a celebrity — in many different ways, but in her near-total break from reality they all amount to the same thing: stalking Buddy.
In between assaults on the hostage that she assumes Buddy is — living as he does with the wrong soulmate and without her — she befriends Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, another guy she used to go to high school with. He was an outcast then and still has the emotional and physical scars to prove it.
And, yes, she shunned or at least ignored him then, which is why she cannot remember his name even though, as he is quick to point out, his locker was right next to hers for four years.
Young Adult is a re-teaming of director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking) and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated so memorably on Juno, which earned him an Oscar nomination and her an Oscar. Their approach in this low-key character study is subdued and off-kilter.
Bravely, Theron plays a character who’s desperate, selfish, juvenile, mean-spirited, deluded, entitled, oblivious, self-destructive, abrasive, ruthless, and essentially pathetic. Not exactly a model citizen. But this time Theron doesn’t hide her striking looks as much as play against them. And in doing so in the extended wake of the film that won her a best actress Oscar (Monster), she has created another kind of monster.
This portrait of stunted emotional growth will prove to be counterproductively off-putting for some viewers because any film sporting a central character this unpleasant, even if she is fascinatingly complex, will pay a price for the privilege.
But the Theron-Cody-Reitman triumvirate certainly gets style points and level-of-difficulty respect for offering the rare female equivalent of an arrested-development character we’ve seen so many male versions of.
Scenes designed to make you cringe do just that. And while Theron’s tightrope act is compelling to watch, the film is more or less stolen by Oswalt, who turns the haunted and disabled ex-geek schoolmate and surprising confidant into a unique and unforgettable, truth-telling supporting character with whom Mavis bonds in unpredictable ways.
Big Fan hinted at what comedian Oswalt could do with dramatic material; Young Adult seals the deal.
And let’s just say without being too specific about the way things end that Reitman, Cody, and Theron remain true to their tone and vision. Catharsis seekers and redemption cravers, be forewarned.
So we’ll return to 2½ stars out of 4 for this dark comedy-drama of discomfort. With its intriguingly unlikable protagonist, Young Adult certainly isn’t for all tastes. But it carves out a cynically edgy niche all its own.