There’s no kind way of putting this: Jason Reitman’s Young Adults is simply not a nice movie. That’s also its strength, and the reason I have a hard time imagining it being a big hit—or maybe even moderate one. It’s an unflinching—albeit often bitingly funny—look into the life of an increasingly delusional functional alcoholic on the verge of losing that “functional” qualifier. And it’s not peddling any comforting bromides to make you feel better. What you’ve got here is a very good film—with flashes of brilliance—that defies you to like it. It’s about as cozy as cuddling with a porcupine, but it’s also at least close to a “must see”—assuming you’re up to it. But don’t just look at its pedigree—a reteaming of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody—and expect another Juno, though the sensibility is not dissimilar.
Charlize Theron (in a perfect—and perfectly unlikable—performance) stars as Mavis Gary, a recently divorced 37-year-old writer of teen fiction. She didn’t create the series she writes, but she churns out the installments by hanging out in malls and picking up on current teen-speak. The problem is that the shelf-life of the series has run out, and Mavis is in the process of writing the final book. Or she is supposed to be, but she’s not having much luck at it. What she mostly does is avoid talking to her publisher while spending her time drinking and indulging in one-night stands. All this changes when she becomes obsessed with an e-mail from old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), announcing the birth of his new baby.
The more she dwells on this, the more she concludes this is some kind of sign that she and Buddy “belong together.” So, of course, the only thing to do is slip out from under the arm of whoever she spent the night with, throw a few things in a bag—including a 20-year-old mixtape and her much-neglected Pomeranian—and head back to her dinky hometown to rekindle the fire. In her mind, it’s as simple as that. How? Well, Mavis is a woman who is perfectly capable of handling not only her side of a relationship, but the other person’s as well. As a result, she’s already decided that Buddy is trapped in a dreadful marriage and just dying for her to come rescue him.
Naturally, things don’t go quite as she expects them to—though she spends the bulk of the film misinterpreting everything that happens to mean what she wants it to. (The groundwork for this is borrowed to some degree from (500) Days of Summer, since Mavis voices her wrong-headed belief that The Graduate is a film about love conquering all.) There is a voice of reason in all this: Matt Freehauf (beautifully played by comic Patton Oswalt), a fellow Mavis should have known from high school (his locker was next to hers), but who wasn’t in her league. She only recognizes him as “the hate-crime guy,” famous in her mind for being beaten-up, maimed and left for dead by some high school jocks for being gay—except he wasn’t and isn’t gay.
Matt may spend his time playing with models and action figures and his home distillery (making Star Wars-themed bourbons), but he’s the opposite of the delusional Mavis and the only one who seriously tries to help her see what’s really going on. But the film isn’t going to take this down any expected path. Diablo Cody’s screenplay is too shrewd for that, while Reitman’s direction is too unsparing at every turn. The role may not glam down Theron the way Monster (2003) did, but it presents her in a warts-and-all manner that is often as far from glamorous as you’re ever likely to see. That she plays two days of the film in the same Hello Kitty T-shirt and stretch pants she was in when she crawled out from under the arm of the one-night-stand guy at the start of the film says a lot.
Don’t misunderstand, the film is often very funny, but the humor is bitter and the film isn’t full of life lessons learned—though it may be said to be littered with life lessons for the taking. The question is whether or not any of them are taken. That Young Adult refuses to bend to conventions—especially in the scene late in the film between Mavis and Matt’s sister (TV actress Collette Wolfe), which is utterly against expectations—is refreshing. How general audiences will take to all this remains to be seen. Rated R for language and some sexual content.