With the double-whammy combination of Bridesmaids and Young Adult, 2011 is officially the year of the stunted, frustrated girl-misfit. A toxic spin on all of those cutesy chick flicks where career girls yearn for marriage, the latter film is the convention-busting story of semi-slovenly, semi-slatternly 37-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who is hellbent on busting up a marriage. Mavis is a woman old enough — the social code goes — to be married and the proud owner of a child (or two). But instead she's floundering in a sea of insecurity when it comes to both love and career. It is an outrageously refreshing change of pace from the priss-pots and put-a-ring-on-it obsessives who constitute the majority of romantic comedies.
In a deliciously terse opening sequence, Mavis is introduced waking up in her cluttered Minneapolis high-rise apartment — more dorm room than grown-up pad — in a hungover funk that you sense she's been riding for a long time. A post-divorce bachelorette, Mavis drinks too much, guzzles Diet Coke for breakfast, and semi-neglects her baby substitute: a fluffy lap dog more tragic than Old Yeller. This is a woman who never grew up. But Mavis' most troubling stuntedness lies in her decision to drive back to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., after she receives an e-mail announcing her high school flame Buddy Slade's (Patrick Wilson) new baby. Her plan is to wrest Buddy away from his sweet, kindhearted wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and new baby daughter.
It's a mission both terrifying and absurd, and Academy Award-winning writer Diablo Cody (teaming up again with Juno director Jason Reitman) milks it for both in her hilarious, insightful script. Cody inverts the usual cliche of the city girl gone back home. Rather than the gleaming beacon of success, Mavis' Minneapolis is more than a little grim. She has had some marginal success working as a young adult novelist, though as a ghostwriter, her name doesn't even appear on the cover page. There's a good reason why Mavis has wound up writing books for teens: She is largely still living in the world of her high school days, back when good looks and a great boyfriend were the definitive bookends for success and popularity.
As in their preggers yarn Juno, Cody and Reitman's Young Adult boasts another snarky, jaded heroine. Theron's Mavis is a tough-talking, deadpan walking punchline who delivers verbal groin kicks to the men she encounters — the soft, vulnerable punching bags helpless to defend themselves. But unlike the smart-as-a-whip and self-effacing Juno, Mavis is more of a sad-sack blank slate, muted by depression. She's never had to work too hard at having a great personality when she's always had beauty. Mavis is often cruel, narcissistic, and shallow, but Theron makes her poignant too. She is an actress willing to work against her own beauty standard to get at something true about women's lives, and her Mavis is a real revelation. There is ample tragedy even in Mavis' prettiness; she applies foundation like war paint and uses hair pieces to hide the fact that she neurotically pulls out her own pale blonde tresses.
While the rest of Mercury appears to have paired up and moved on, Mavis is stuck. It's no wonder, then, that the person she bonds with in Mercury is another stunted soul: the disabled victim of a vicious high school hate crime Matt Freehof (the magnificent, very funny Patton Oswalt), who is still dealing with the trauma. Matt lives with his sister in a shabby home you suspect they inherited from their parents. His hobby is building his own action figures in his garage workshop. A wonderfully multidimensional character, Matt is droll, geeky, and too hip for his small town.
Though paced to the vinegary tang of Cody's smart-ass dialogue, Young Adult has its fair share of problems too. As with Juno, viewers will have to suspend disbelief at times to buy into the exaggerated, almost graphic novel-quality of Cody's imagination. Some of the biggest hiccups in the film come when Mavis re-enters the dead air space of her Mercury. The notion of an all-dolled up, goddess-like Mavis walking into a small town bar or restaurant in a cleavage-baring dress and mustering nary a second glance from the male patrons is patently ludicrous.
After heading at breakneck speed to the climactic confrontation between Mavis and Buddy, the film flounders for a way to wrap up without appearing either hopeless or saccharine. Ultimately, Mavis' arc seems a little arc-less. The dramatic crescendo can feel both rushed and a little insincere. It's like a band-aid quickly slapped on a wound where a tourniquet would have been more appropriate to stem all of this emotional bloodletting.