A cynical slice of life courtesy of director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air), reuniting with Oscar winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. Remember how Up in the Air surveyed the emotional landscape of America in this time of economic crisis? Though it ended with its main character, a professional hatchet man played by George Clooney, in a place of despair and uncertainty, Reitman softened the blow by giving the idealistic Anna Kendrick character a second chance at personal and professional happiness. The director then went a step further by including a montage of people who had recently lost their jobs; they described their anxieties and sorrows, but also underlined the importance of family and love.
In Young Adult, Reitman offers a clear-eyed, gallows humor-infused view of troubled souls in the American Midwest. Except this time he isn't interested in softening any blows. Whether it's because of the film's ostensible mainstream-comedy status or Cody's influence or a mixture of the two, Reitman ends up going for the jugular in this portrait of the former small-town girl miserable in the city and the just-as-miserable people left behind in the small town. Beneath the ample laughs, this is the director's heaviest film to date.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis, who left one-horse Mercury, Minnesota behind for the promise of Minneapolis, the "Mini-Apple," and is now a quasi-successful author of novels aimed at teenage girls. At a personal impasse and slipping ever deeper into alcoholism, Mavis hatches a bizarre plan to return to her hometown and steal away an old flame (Patrick Wilson), now a married man and new father. Theron delivers a terrific performance, her best ever. It's fascinating to watch the gifted actress breathe life into a character this flawed, unpleasant, misguided, and strange. Her performance is full of wonderful comic details--there will surely be a YouTube video in the future chronicling all her priceless sour expressions and icy reactions (on the Patrick Wilson character's baby: "have you seen it...up close?")--but also has an aching emotional honesty. There is pain and warmth beneath the queen-bitch exterior. The fact Mavis remains a three-dimensional character capable of generating interest and sympathy and never becomes a one-note villain to be outright despised is a real credit to Theron's mastery.
Patrick Wilson is decent in an easy role--the nice, bland lug years past his high-school prime--but Theron's real foil is stand-up comedian/Ratatouille voice Patton Oswalt as a heavyset cripple who Mavis went to high school with--but barely knew--and with whom she connects upon her return to town. Oswalt is more than just charismatic and good with one-liners, he conveys his character's emotional and physical torment--he was the victim of a homophobic beating in high school, and his body is still dealing with the repercussions, including a bum leg--with startling precision.
Cody's screenplay is a notable step forward for her. It's largely free of the super-adorable, slightly-grating lingo which defined her Juno writing. There's far less emphasis on quirky wordplay here, replaced with more breathing room for characters. Cody hits a few snags near the end--Wilson's character's dialogue after a big front-lawn meltdown by Mavis rings false, too bite-sized judgmental--but nothing disastrous.
I am not sure how audiences will react when faced with this film. It's very entertaining, and there's definitely brilliance in its DNA, but there is also a dash of strychnine. It doesn't offer many comforting gestures or clear-cut answers, so it might not be easy for everyone to swallow, but it deserves to find an audience. And Theron and Oswalt both deserve serious Oscar consideration.