In 2003, Charlize Theron put on 30 pounds, shaved her eyebrows and wore prosthetics to play vicious white-trash serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins Monster. The result was a harrowing transformative performance that paid off with a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar. In Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, Theron does no such thing but the results are just as impressive because beneath her dolled up face, glowing skin and sexy outfits lurks a monster that’s equally disturbing.
Theron plays Mavis Gary, a resentful, selfish, needy ghost writer of young adult literature who revels in spewing hate. She may be attractive on first glance but her superficiality, lack of empathy, laziness and general disregard for her health (she’s obsessed with junk food) make her one of the most venomous characters you’ll see on screen this year. If you thought Cameron Diaz was a bitch in Bad Teacher, wait until you get a load of Mavis. A divorced alcoholic with no friends save for her dingy Pomeranian who she constantly neglects, Mavis’ drab routine encompasses writing her latest novel during the day, engaging in random trysts in the evenings, and waking up hung over in her grubby condo the next day as reality TV junk like the Kardashians play in the background.
When Mavis receives an email from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school sweetheart, inviting her to the birth announcement party of his first child, the delusional Mavis sets out to “win” him back as she’s convinced he cannot possibly be content with married life in a small town with ignoramuses for company. Seeing an opportunity to relive her glory days, Mavis heads out to her hometown and ends up becoming “friends” with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a crippled wise-ass who once and still harbors a crush on her. Even though he is disturbed by her plan of action (he requests that she get treatment immediately), he continues to hang out with her, offering her advice and eventually becoming her voice of reason. But Mavis is unredeemable and when she realizes that Buddy, a simpleton to say the least, is devoted to his loving wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), we realize that there is no end to this woman’s depravity.
Young Adult marks the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and writer Diablo Cody after their Oscar-winning Juno. Like that film, Young Adult too is set in a small-town in Minnesota and is a film that finely balances elements of comedy and drama. But that’s where the similarities end because what Reitman and Cody have created here is a dark and twisted beast in the vein of Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg. Like Baumbach’s films, Young Adult is a cold, unsympathetic and even realistic character study of a vile and remorseless person who doesn’t change or learn significant life lessons through the course of the film. This isn’t Juno and it sure as hell isn’t Up in the Air. While Cody isn’t as successful in condemning her characters the way Baumbach does, at least Young Adult is devoid of the pseudo quirkiness that permeated Juno and Jennifer’s Body, Cody’s other film.
Reitman and Cody may be the selling points but the real reason to see Young Adult is for Theron who is a revelation – displaying remarkable skill as a dramatic performer as well as a comedienne. Mavis may be a “psychotic prom queen bitch” from hell but Theron’s layered performance prevents her from becoming a one-note acid-spewing machine in the vein of Cameron Diaz’s character in Bad Teacher. It might be the best performance of her career. Oswalt, who hasn’t had the chance to fully display his acting chops, is equally impressive as the lovelorn Matt. He’s simultaneously riveting, funny and tragic.
Young Adult is director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s version of a Noah Baumbach movie. In other words, it’s not going to be for everyone. If you’re expecting this to be another Juno, then you’ll be in for a massive surprise. Instead, this is a darkly funny and twisted character study of a vile and unsympathetic character played by Charlize Theron in career-best form.