Movies love to teach us life lessons — which is kind of ironic, because if you’ve ever gotten to know any screenwriters or directors, you learn that some of them are lovely people, but very few of them should be in the advice-dispensing business.
But even in the “do as I say, not as I divorce” world of film, it’s something of an exception to get a movie like “Young Adult,” which features a lead character who’s selfish, conniving and despicable, but ultimately doesn’t seem to learn a single thing. It’s an imperfect film, to be sure, but the movie’s refusal to sacrifice its leading lady on the altar of Here’s How to Behave feels downright revolutionary.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) may have reached her 30s, but she’s as shallow and narcissistic as the popular high school girls she writes about in a “young adult” book series that’s in its waning days. Reeling from a recent divorce and battling writer’s block, Mavis finds herself compelled to return to her small Minnesota town when she receives a birth notice from Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), the wife of Mavis’ high school beau Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson).
Over drinks at a local bar, Mavis confides in her old classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt) — they had adjoining lockers, but she never spoke to him — that her agenda is to win Buddy back, new baby or no new baby. Despite her tales of literary success and heavy usage of foundation, however, Mavis comes to realize that she’s not fooling anyone into thinking that she’s got her life together.
“Young Adult” works best in its portrayal of Mavis’ unapologetically bratty behavior, and Theron clearly relishes the opportunity to play a woman who’s both smart and deluded, bitchy and vulnerable, underhanded and capable of real friendship. (Her unlikely chemistry with Oswalt will continue to flourish in other movies, if there’s any justice.)
While Theron’s Mavis pops off the screen as a fresh and unusual film character, however, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to her standards. Diablo Cody’s screenplay feels like a step forward after “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body” — apart from one reference to a “Ken-Taco-Hut,” an abbreviation for a combination KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, it doesn’t feel like she’s throwing new catch phrases at the wall in the hopes that one will stick — but it lacks a certain forward momentum.
Re-teaming with Jason Reitman (and after “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult” is something of a step backward), Cody juggles interesting ideas and characters, but zips past potentially interesting subplots and doesn’t build on the situations as effectively as she might have. There are some fun scenes and compelling interplay, but despite the many good ideas on tap here, the movie doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere all that interesting, apart from its refusal to punish Mavis for her wicked, wicked ways.
One of the best facets of “Young Adult” bodes well for Cody’s upcoming work: Mavis’ narration of the book she’s writing makes a terrific counterpoint to what’s happening to her, and Cody has gone on record saying that she’s planning to bring the vintage YA series “Sweet Valley High” to the screen. With any luck, that film will play to her strengths while also polishing up her still-rough edges.
In the meantime, kudos to Cody for creating one of her most indelible characters to date, and to Reitman for having the good sense to hand the role to Theron.