Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary
Elizabeth Reaser as Beth Slade
Patrick Wilson as Buddy Slade
Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf
J.K. Simmons as Mavis’ Boss
Collette Wolfe as Sandra Freehauf
Louisa Krause as Front Desk Girl
Hettienne Park as Vicki Robek
Brian McElhaney as Blake
John Forest as Mike Moran
Directed by Jason Reitman
Shortly after her divorce, 37-year-old young adult fiction writer Mavis Gray (Charlize Theron) decides to return home to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota to win back her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), now married with a baby. There, she finds a confidante in Matt Frehauf (Patton Oswalt), the high school loner who got beat up by jocks who thought he was gay, and he does his best to convince her to give up her quest.
In 2007, second generation director Jason Reitman teamed with first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody for the teen pregnancy comedy “Juno,” which introduced many people to both of them. It won over a strong fanbase for its unique characters and narrative style, not to mention an Oscar for Cody, and the idea of “second record slump” may have put just a bit too much pressure on the duo to create something just as lasting.
What we get is Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary, introduced during a funny opening montage that shows her pathetic day-to-day life. When she learns her high school boyfriend Buddy has had a kid, she decides to return home to win him back. Her first night there, she encounters Matt (Patton Oswalt), a loner who was seriously injured in high school when beaten by bullies, and his own inner darkness somehow mirrors her own so that they become fast friends even though she ignored him in high school.
“Young Adult” is a different type of movie from “Juno,” one geared more towards women in their 30s rather than teens, and Mavis is nothing like women we normally see in Hollywood movies and more like women we might know in real life. That’s not a good thing and therein lines the film’s biggest problem because it’s hard to empathize with a character who’s selfish and somewhat deluded about reality and Mavis’ situation is not one that might immediately connect with viewers – unless they’re selfish alcoholics trying to break up marriages, in which case, they’ll probably love that someone’s written a movie that pays tribute to them.
It results in a comedy with very few laughs, because there’s nothing particularly funny about a selfish woman so out of touch with those around her. It’s a shame because Cody’s writing has clearly evolved and matured since “Juno” and she no longer relies on cutesy slang to make a statement as was the case with some of her earlier work.
One of its clear saving graces is Patton Oswalt, whose unconventional pairing with Theron creates one of the most potent on-screen pairings in recent memory. Oswalt brings just the right level of snark and pathos to Cody’s dialogue, as well as having a number of strong dramatic moments that makes this a great follow-up to his role in “Big Fan.” It really feels like he found this character and fleshed it out beyond the potential for Matt being one-dimensional. In fact, whenever Mavis is on her own, the film trudges along as you wait patiently for Oswalt’s return, and it’s a true shame that Matt doesn’t get any sort of satisfying closure, instead being left behind and forgotten once Mavis’s own story moves on.
Deciding to direct this script seems like an odd and slightly unambitious choice for Reitman as a director, especially following “Up in the Air.” Granted, what a director does can be somewhat vague in a movie like this, but there are very few scenes in “Young Adult” that make you think “I’m watching a movie from a two-time Oscar-nominated director.” This is because there a number of choices that just don’t work like the storytelling device of having the film narrated by Mavis’ writing about a teen girl in high school as an analogy to what’s going on in her own life. It’s something obvious and not nearly as clever as anything we’ve seen from either Cody or Reitman and therefore, it’s also something that quickly grows tiring. Other than a grand revival of Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept,” the music is also somewhat uninspired with a soundtrack composed by Rolfe Kent that does little to elevate either the laughter or the emotion.
Essentially, something just seems off about the movie that doesn’t make you feel like you necessarily need to see it again any time soon – which oddly may have been why I saw it twice. There are some good lines and bits, but the laughs are few and far between mainly since Mavis Gary is such an unpleasant character and it’s hard to find anything funny about someone so out of touch with those around her. For an immediate comparison, there’s Kristen Wiig’s character in “Bridesmaids” who is often just as selfish, but she also has redeeming qualities and that’s why you end up liking her and hoping that things get better for her.
You might spend the majority of “Young Adult” thinking Mavis will find some sort of redemption, but it’s unlikely you’ll feel she’s learned anything or grown up even in the slightest from returning to Mercury. If Mavis made even a slight effort to apologize or redeem herself, maybe we could forgive the film’s lack of a satisfying resolution, but it’s hard to root for someone so detestable, especially realizing how many real people there are like her in this world, and that ruins any good will the movie may have garnered earlier.
The Bottom Line:
There’s plenty of potential in a character like Mavis Gary, something that can be attributed as much to Diablo Cody’s writing as Charlize Theron’s performance, but it feels squandered by the character failing to win you over or give you any reason to want to follow her story arc.
Young Adult opens in select cities on December 9 then expands nationwide on December 16.