“Young Adult” sour in world-view, sharp in wit

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) looks on at her clueless ex-beau, Buddy Slade, in "Young Adult".

Being a high-school student, it’s not uncommon to look around sometimes and contemplate where everyone’s gonna end up in 20 years. Not just geographically speaking, but emotionally as well. Jason Reitman’s new film “Young Adult” stares dead-on into the eyes of former-prom queen, present-author Mavis Gary. Her works are throwaway “young-adult” literature: shallow, self-obsessed tracts about popularity and glamour that funnily enough, perfectly reflect Gary’s self-image. She’s a 2011 woman whose head remains in 1991, still manipulating and twisting people for her own ends just like old times — and a divorced alcoholic.

Her migration from Minneapolis to small-town Mercury, Minnesota is part of a quest to get old high-school-flame Buddy Slade back. The fact that he’s now married, a father, and well, boring, doesn’t halt Gary for a minute, and this self-deluded quest is the basis for the film.

Charlize Theron as Mavis is the front-and-center focus, and Theron does not disappoint. She delivers “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody’s dialogue with an acrid tongue and self-important poise. But the majority of her heavy-work is actually what comes in-between the quips — the dishelved “morning-after” segments that follow her night-time rampages through bars and hearts, the little grimaces and lip-bites that reveal her near-monstrous nature, and the little pauses and sighs that reveal the real pain that beats at her center. Theron is exceptional because she layers the subtle with the theatrical — and unlike many of her peers, she knows when to equip the two. She’s not a character, but a force.

Serving as an unlikely friend to Mavis through her tenure in Mercury is Matt. Matt is an overweight sadsack whose notable high-school accomplishment was when jocks permanently crippled him because of his supposed homosexuality, and he’s longed after Mavis for 20 years. When the two occupy the screen together, “Young Adult” finds its true voice of reason and reality. Patton Oswalt’s take on Matt is a pitch-perfect side-turn, proving his dramatic chops to be as fine-tuned as his hysterical stand-up-comedy. A scene in which the two greet each other free of any clothing is poignant, awkward and heartbreaking all rolled into one.

The real star here is Diablo Cody’s script — not just as an individual work, but as a logical progression in maturity and depth. Cody’s actual dialogue takes upon a more sober, mature matter than her “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body” scripts, but she retains the tart, sassy attitude and subtext that made those films stand out.

“Young Adult” is a curious affair, a film whose subtle but sharp humor comes from watching a woman humiliate herself and annihilate all relationships in her wake. It’s also a curiosity in Jason Reitman’s filmography — certainly less immediate and striking than his last film “Up in the Air”, and perhaps a minor disappointment given that was one of the great films of the past decade. Both films are about people and the folly of their personal philosophies. “Young Adult” is so damn interesting because Mavis Gary never realizes it. It’s a terrible flaw that makes for a damn good film. B+

Dedicated to Chris Narine.

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