Dark comedies are so hard to do, and when done right they will appeal only to a limited audience. The latest Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody concoction, Young Adult, is one such film. Those looking for a laugh-out-loud “Hot Chick Gone Bad” riot better look elsewhere. Those looking for a painfully honest character study should sit down and have a drink. Anchored by a scathingly deadpan turn from Charlize Theron, Young Adult is as sharp as a tack and will burn in your throat like a shot of home-distilled bourbon.
Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a recently divorced semi-successful ghost writer for a once popular series of YA novels (both the series and Mavis are past their prime) who is spurred to return to her “hick” hometown when she receives an email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend’s baby. Mavis Gary joins a solid line of Jason Reitman anti-heros/anti-heroines (just like the lead characters in his Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air) – people who think they have life all figured out, hold steadfast to their sense of self and of the world around them, and then are thrown for a big loop. Charlize Theron fully inhabits this character (according to interviews, she played Mavis as if this were a drama), and although she physically looks like a more frazzled version of her real-life smoking-hot self, she still puts her whole body into the role with the same gusto she used to become a serial killer in Monster. Theron must have the worst agent in Hollywood with all the crap she has been in (Aeon Flux anyone?) but every so often she turns in performances in movies like this that make you think if she had a better agent she could be the female Daniel Day-Lewis. Theron gets that lost in her best characters – and Mavis is one of them.
Mavis’ ex is played by the always haplessly handsome Patrick Wilson, and Mavis is determined to win him back despite his “baggage.” While downing Maker’s Mark (my kind of woman) and hatching her plan at the local dive bar, she meets for the first time a guy named Matt whose locker was next to her’s for four years of highschool but whom she never gave the light of day. Matt is played with biting sorrow by the sad-clown that is Patton Oswalt – one of my favorite “dark” stand-up comedians. In his senior year, he was known as the “hate crime guy” – a poor theater-obsessed fat kid who was mistaken for being gay and mercilessly beaten by a bunch of jocks. He walks around now with a cane, and in a hilariously off-color follow-up scene at the same bar, he and Mavis run into Mavis’ cousin (whom they both hate) – a guy who got in a horrible car wreck in highschool and became the “popular cripple.” His relentlessly positive attitude drives Mavis and Matt to drink even more, and these two “down-and-outers” from opposite sides of the tracks combust like a homemade chemistry set.
Reitman’s subtle direction (watch how he turns his hand-held-ish camera to focus just for a split second on the looks on people’s faces when Mavis says or does something shocking) is matched tit-for-tat with Diablo Cody’s acerbic screenplay. I honestly thought Cody was going to go down as a one-trick pony after Juno, but she shows growth as a writer here and one can’t help but think there is a little of Mavis in her. Gone is that obsession with hipster dialogue, though she still has an ear for how people who think they are hip talk, and here it is replaced by a humanistic but unapologetic decent into the inner delusional world of a self-absorbed, alcoholic writer who while obviously crying out for help (at one point she straight-up tells her parents she thinks she is an alcoholic, an assertion they completely ignore) is also incapable of seeing herself how others see her. The humor in this situation is so dark and bracing, that when real moments of drama and vulnerability come through (witness Matt’s tirade in the woods or Mavis’ blow-up at her ex’s baby-naming party) you feel completely disarmed.
And the near-brilliance of it all is that just when you think Mavis is about to come to some revelation, in steps Matt’s twisted loser of a sister (played brilliantly by Collette Wolfe of Observe and Report fame) – someone who worshiped Mavis from afar in high school and who erroneously validates every sick thing Mavis sees in the world around her.
There’s a striking resemblance to HBO’s equally subtle and dark comedy series Enlightened starring a luminously mad and awkward Laura Dern. But what makes Young Adult so cinematic and complete is its abrupt conclusion. Mavis Gary remains to the very end an unenlightened young adult, and she’s never going to change. That, my friends, is a sobering view of some people in this world.