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David Thomson on Films: An Unsparing Portrait of American Breakdown

There are advertisements and reviews out there that tell you to expect comedy in Young Adult. You deserve a sterner warning. Yes, the picture is written by Diablo Cody* (of Juno and TV's “United States of Tara”) and it is directed by Jason Reitman (of Juno and Up in the Air). But, if you recall, Up in the Air had George Clooney as a cool, amiable flake whose job it is to tell people they are fired, and who is set back (to zero?) when Vera Farmiga’s colder character tells him that their love affair of convenience and intricate travel schedules is going nowhere. There are laughs in Up in the Air, but it remained a dire portrait of our sad times. Young Adult is tougher, but it may be better.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t merit a name like that—has there been a major “Mavis” in a movie for a while? Is that stretch a hint? She is said to be thirty-seven, which fits the actress’s profile, but she is a knockout—tall, blond, and authoritative in ways that resemble Theron. But she’s a creep. She is divorced, living in a hellish apartment building in Minneapolis with a fluffy dog she zips up in a bag whenever she has to travel. How that dog survives the story without savaging Mavis is the mystery.

She is a ghost-writer on a series of young adult romances that is being retired for lack of sales. She is an alcoholic, and insane enough to believe she can find a life by going back to her small hometown of Mercury to reclaim her high school beloved, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). What prompted her to do this is an e-mail announcement that Buddy and his wife have just had a baby. Whatever turns you on.

So this proves to be a picture about going home to a place Mavis loathes. Her Buddy plan is demented—he is a dull, decent guy, haplessly devoted to his wife and child, and he gets properly embarrassed when the drunken Mavis reminds him of the first time she ever went down on him. That comes shortly before a superb but grisly sequence of sustained horror when Mavis cracks up, in front of a hushed party, and reveals—perhaps even to herself—how crazy sick she is.

We already know the kind of courage Charlize Theron possesses from Monster, the movie for which she won the Oscar as a desperate prostitute carrying at least thirty pounds over the actress’s weight with a face that had been beaten up too many times. In a way, Young Adult is braver still because it lets Mavis look so good. On several occasions in the film, all to woo Buddy (who hardly looks at her), Mavis has her nails done and gets facials. Shot after shot has her making herself up in ways that can’t be too far from Ms. Theron’s own practice. The result is ravishing but Mavis becomes a greater louse with every calculated lip gloss, while moving further away from sympathy than the woman in Monster.

Nothing about her attempt on Buddy has charm or appeal. We can see that for ourselves, but Young Adult gives us another perspective. As soon as she hits Mercury, Mavis falls in with Matt (Patton Oswalt), another high-school contemporary and someone she hardly recalls until she picks up on his story. As a teenager (just as Mavis made prom queen), Matt was attacked by some jocks who thought he was gay. They shattered his leg and damaged his penis (are we laughing yet?)—and they left him heavy, limping, and wry, as well as the most tender, intelligent character in this very dark film.

Diablo and Reitman helped to produce Young Adult, and it’s a surprise not to find Theron in those credits, too, as someone resolved that this picture be put on our screen. It’s hard to believe as the film goes along that anyone reckoned to get this made today, without a lifeline of rescue being thrown out to us. What the title is getting at is not just Mavis’s half-hearted profession, it’s the quality of deranged, unformed existence in which she still sees herself as a young adult who can revive an old crush without any sense of collateral damage. Mercury tells her to go away. It’s up to us to decide what lesson she has learned by the end, if any, and whether she has any chance in life. I saw the film in a nearly full house to a mixture of applause and stunned silence—you could detect both responses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if attendance drops quickly after the opening weekend.

Don’t be put off. After Up in the Air, this feels like proof of Jason Reitman’s unblinking misanthropy. He surely needs his actress to carry the film, but this is a study of American breakdown sufficient to take your breath away. We meet the older generation in Mercury (there are small, sharp performances from Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, and Mary Beth Hurt), but not a trace of small-town comfort or sentiment remains as everyone in Mercury is left gazing at Mavis as an authentic monster. It is highly unusual for an American film to drop us with so little reassurance or escape. In the normal run of things, the wretched Mavis might have turned into an axe-killer—a genre monster—but Diablo, Reitman, and Theron have made it harder on us. Mavis’s monstrousness stays everyday and casual.

Patton Oswalt is the film’s soft rock as Matt, no matter that his character is resigned to his own wreckage. He understands Mavis better than anyone; he knows what’s coming, and cares about it. It’s a hard part to play, with Matt’s patient, plodding presence cut off from self-pity, or Mavis’s compassion, for most of the time. As for Charlize Theron, it’s hard to measure one’s respect adequately. There has always been something so fixedly inward about her that she can seem detached or deprived. Many of her movies have ignored that and settled for the beauty. But here it’s as if the script and the direction felt bound to heed that loneliness, and let the actress go with her bravery and the depressive sag of her mouth. Great actresses have played appalling characters in the past—like Bette Davis in The Letter—but we were protected by the actress’s rhetoric, the old-fashioned stormy music, and the subtext that it was just Bette doing her thing. In Young Adult there is no such safety net. Theron has gone for broke and dysfunction. You feel like her wretched dog—you want to be zipped up in a bag.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

*This article originally reversed the order of the screenwriter's name, referring to her as Cody Diablo. Her name, in fact, is Diablo Cody.