In the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (they gave us "Juno" and she won a Screenplay Oscar in the process), our protagonists may be older, but that doesn't make them any wiser. In fact, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) still resides in the rarefied land where her high school days were the pinnacle of her success. She has an idealized memory of her popularity and perceived true love (Patrick Wilson), so when confronted with the disappointments in her big city existence--she attempts to reclaim some of her former glory. Specifically, she hatches a plot to return to her home town and rescue Wilson from what she believes is his domestic prison--namely a wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and new baby. "Young Adult" is marketed as a black comedy, and it certainly has some of the most awkward and uncomfortable humor that you're likely to encounter. But in essence, it seems like a dramatic character study whose narrative arc is depicted largely through bitterly funny encounters. This squirm inducing film has plenty of laugh out loud moments, but its truthfulness (and underlying sadness) resonate long after the film ends.
In many ways, that's what really makes "Young Adult" a stand-out. Cody, dispensing with the rapid fire pop culture referencing she's known for, creates someone very believable and human in Mavis Gary. Selfish, vindictive, delusional--she is not a particularly nice person. She wears a veneer of confidence like a suit of armor, but all the cracks are starting to show. It is an uncompromising role, and Theron inhabits it with a fearless aggression. It may be one of my favorite performances of the year. Like a fine balancing act, the film never makes Theron a cartoon villain (which would happen in most other movies). She is always wildly real and unpredictable and, quite frankly, slightly dangerous. But the screenplay also makes another conscious choice that, again, few other mainstream movies (especially comedies) ever attempt. This is not a story of redemption or learning life's lessons. There is no moralistic posturing or hugs all around. There is, in short, no sell-out to who this character is. And that turns a good film into a really memorable one!
Theron is, in a word, incredible. Both Wilson and Reaser do well as the couple targeted by Theron's machinations. But the film's most surprising role is fulfilled by Patton Oswalt, as a high school outsider who forms an unlikely alliance with the adult Theron. They play off each other effortlessly. Oswalt may be the one person who Theron can really be herself with, and the development of their relationship is one of the primary selling points of "Young Adult." Truthfully, I loved this movie. It showcases a complicated unpleasantness and brutal honesty that may not appeal to every viewer (especially those seeking frothy romantic comedy). But its grittier vibe is a real change of pace. Funny, and remarkably sad as well, "Young Adult" covers somewhat familiar territory but seems surprisingly fresh and different and smart. KGHarris, 12/11.