You’ll have to pardon my French throughout this review, but there’s no other way to put it. “Young Adult” is Diablo Cody’s courtroom drama-style comedy that puts the bitch on trial, both the Hollywood archetype and a very peculiar bitch of her own creation. It’s really a genius work that serves as a genre deconstruction as well as a story of narcissism and self-loathing in the Facebook age that can stand up on its own two feet. Then factor in the irresistible pathos of Jason Reitman, a director who tells the most authentic emotional narratives of anyone working in Hollywood today, and you’ve got one of the best movies of 2011.
In anyone else’s hands, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary would be a totally unsympathetic, curmudgeonly home-wrecker. Her vile acts of shameless selfishness draw first our shock, then our ire. Every minute longer she lingers on the screen, we hate her all the more. She’s toxic, knows it, and does nothing to change it.
But dare I say it, I actually related to Mavis – way more than I should have, in fact. While we can’t deny her agency for all her awful deeds, Cody refuses to let her be totally written off as someone mean-spirited down to her core. Her story takes Mavis back to the root of her problems, her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. We get to see the society that spawns the psychotic ex-prom queen, forcing us to wonder how much of her fate is due to society and circumstance.
Theron, who’s no stranger to playing monsters, performs the unenviable task of humanizing Mavis, and she gets down in the mud with her character to really figure out what makes her tick. Back in her old stomping grounds, we see shades of her former glory – voted Best Hair, prom queen, steady boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) – and realize she is motivated solely to be happy again in the same way she was at 18. Her hope is that by returning to the last time she remembers being somebody in society’s eyes, she can reverse the direction of her life away from her three best friends being Diet Coke, reruns of “Kendra,” and her BlackBerry.
Whether you choose to feel sorry for her is up to you, but amidst her acts of ruthless destructiveness, Cody provides many moments for us to step back and reevaluate Mavis. It’s heartbreaking to watch her sit down to breakfast with her parents, confess her potential alcoholism, and witness them not even bat an eyelid. While we can’t exactly pardon her, we can readjust our view of Mavis as the victim of her own decision not to grow up, one made when she was on top of the world and had to be put other people down to maintain her prestige. Her sulky, “at least I don’t suck as much as you” attitude is one of many indicators that she’s no different than the snotty teenage characters she writes for a fading young adult series.
Charlize Theron, hilarious as she is horrifying in the role, absolutely knocks it out of the park. I cannot wait to watch this movie again and again to further examine the subtleties of her performance. Cody’s script gives her so many venomous lines to spew, but so much of Mavis Gary’s imposing bitchiness comes from Theron’s icy stares and severe body language.
Her catty antics amplify in intensity and impact when she’s around her foil Matt Freehauf, a high school classmate who actually has a reason to feel victimized. Matt is played by Patton Oswalt in a stunning turn that allows both his nerdy humor to glow and his dramatic capabilities to show. We feel the movie through him, and Matt’s willingness to call out Mavis on her erratic behavior is exactly what we wish we could do if Reitman allowed us to jump into the frame.
Don’t forget that this is still a Jason Reitman movie too, which means that it’s infused with same quickly cut scenes of “Up in the Air,” the lovable thorniness of “Thank You For Smoking,” the charm of “Juno,” and an expert attention to tone and mood that isn’t afraid to manipulate expectations. His opening credits are the most memorable of the few being made nowadays, and the glimpse inside the mechanics of a mix-tape hold surprising revelations into the critical analysis ahead. It’s a daunting task to ask audiences to look at the bitch as anything more than just a bitch, but Reitman and Cody make “Young Adult” an experience both appropriately uncomfortable and subversively critical.
Ultimately, you are the juror, left to decide if Mavis is guilty or not guilty. What’s the verdict? What crimes can she be held responsible for? Such are the conversations you are left to have after “Young Adult,” and such dialogue is exactly what great movies should inspire. A- /