Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The hate-on-Diablo-Cody bandwagon has been overflowing with snarky passengers for the past four years; hell, we’ve even taken the wheel, just this past week. And up until now, the polarizing, distinctly voiced screenwriter mostly deserved the contempt. Depending on who you talk to, her Academy Award-winning 2007 debut, the Jason Reitman-directed, “honest to blog” spunky Juno is either the decade’s best and most original teen comedy or an overrated assortment of unnatural dialogue. Cody’s follow-up piece of writing, the horrific 2009 horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, didn’t help matters, squandering, amongst other possibilities, a girl-on-girl scene between Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried—no easy feat.
But with her third original screenplay, Young Adult, Cody has scripted a mature, positively painful, and uncomfortably funny bit of domestic horror, though the cold-bloodedness is of the everyday, non-fatal variety. Reuniting the scribe with filmmaker Reitman, Young Adult attempts to make audiences empathize with a grade-A bitch, Mavis Gary, played by Charlize Theron, in her first starring role in four years, and the stunning actress’ best performance aside from her towering work in 2003’s devastating Monster. Here, Theron pulls off the seemingly impossible, evoking humanity in an character so unbelievably aloof, ruthless, and drowning in self-hatred that she doesn’t think twice about trying to win back an old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) who’s now married with a newborn daughter.
Looking at her hick-ish hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, with ample embarrassment, the 37-year-old Mavis, a successful, divorced ghostwriter of a young adult, girl-centric fiction series dubbed Waverly Prep, heads back to her old stomping grounds after she receives word of the ex’s, Buddy Slade, recent familial addition. At all turns, she’s a shark of a beauty queen, strutting around the humble and lower-class Mercury in high heels and tight dresses, which makes her unlikely, of-the-moment friendship with former unpopular classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt, a revelation with unexpectedly potent dramatic chops) all the more odd for the characters yet ingenious on Cody’s part. Matt’s the viewer’s proxy, constantly telling Mavis that her efforts to seduce Buddy are morally bankrupt; Mavis, on the other hand, sees Matt as harmless drinking buddy. Stand-up champ Oswalt’s scenes with Theron, no comedic slouch herself, lend Young Adult its overtly funny edge.
For the film’s wry, dark comedy, credit Theron’s fragile mix of unaware naiveté and home-wrecking menace, Cody’s knack for unflinchingly brutal characterization, and Reitman’s wise decision to tone down his otherwise snappy directorial style whenever Mavis plays herself. Young Adult is a rarity, a movie invested in a particularly unsympathetic female character that intelligently finds ways to make its lead a tragic compassion earner—it’s the estrogen-filled sister to Taxi Driver, minus the violence, pimps, and prostitutes. Cody matches Mavis’ coldest moments, such as the repeated shunning of her affection-seeking little dog (named Dolce, naturally) and calling Buddy’s seed “baggage,” with well-placed glimpses of vulnerability; when she involuntarily reunites with her friendly parents, Mavis cuts into the catch-up chat with “Yeah, I think I’m an alcoholic,” an admission that’s laughed off by her oblivious mother. Yet, Theron’s sad eyes convey Mavis’ concealed pain at such me-against-the-world emptiness.
It’s that lack of emotional support, which spurs from Mavis’ own doing, which keeps her on the negative path to routine drunkenness and zero life changes. Bravely, Cody and Reitman resist the more traditionally happy, “main character is better in the end” conclusion, closing Young Adult off with a more realistic resolution—the bad person, despite her flashes of likeability, remains bad. One shouldn’t appreciate Mavis Gary; with her love of the Kardashians’ reality TV programs, delusions of grandeur, and selfishness, she’s a menace in a supermodel’s body. Yet Theron’s portrayal is so delicately rendered that Young Adult’s more of a subtle tragedy than a case study in feminine awfulness. And for that, Cody deserves to run that aforementioned bandwagon off the road.