With Young Adult, her third feature as screenwriter, Diablo Cody constructs a woman out of pieces of herself, pieces of who one can assume were her frenemies in high school, and pieces of a two-dimensional wackjob whose drastic instability comes with flat, long-standing tics like pulling out bits of her hair. Two of these personas lend themselves to brazenly perceptive, delightfully cutting 21st-century comedy, providing firsthand basis from which to launch into character study and pungent generational commentary. Love or hate her artistic output, 33-year-old Cody is clearly someone who’s long had her eyes and ears wide open to pop culture, making her hyper-aware of how those in and around her age bracket have both sown and reaped the rampant spread of gluttonous commercialism, leaving many stunted and discontented to a radical extent.
Far beyond the obvious link of lead character Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) being a thirtysomething ghost writer of YA fiction (a genre of definite interest to Cody, from projects to subject matter), the self-portraiture of Young Adult takes on macro characteristics, with nostalgia-happy Minneapolitan Mavis returning to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to find it overrun with labels and chains (Staples, Home Depot, Chili’s, “KenTacoHuts”), a bleak reflection of shallow urban creep and her own superficial existence. Within a characteristic cage, Cody presents Mavis as a walking representative sample, complete with Cody’s own wit and writerly shortcomings, and the lingering snobbery of the adolescent bitches who presumably cut down her creativity.
Unfortunately, all of this rich and wry insight is supplemental to the story’s unconvincing crux, which involves Mavis pulling a My Best Friend’s Wedding and heading home to reclaim her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who’s now married with a newborn. Presented from the inside out (we meet Mavis in her livably messy apartment, where she watches Kendra and The Kardashians, squeezes in Wii Fit sessions, peels off weaves and silicone cutlets from the night before, and maintains her detached lifestyle with a kind of unkempt exactness), the antiheroine’s initial and overall characterization is so vivid that her cockamamie mission is hugely overshadowed, and widely out of step with who she seems to be.
Supported by the fact that she not only writes youth-targeted fluff, but has positioned herself in a profession that requires little to no daily-grind maturity (Cody is keen to deglamorize the life of a working writer), Mavis’s lack of growth is perfectly believable, as is the notion that she’d want to recapture the days when she was a scrunchy-wearing, world-ruling prom queen. But rather than merely stopping at wishful—or even disoriented—denial, her selfish, insular delusions are stretched into the realm of full-blown mania. In a move that’s transparent and even a wee bit insulting, Cody expects us to believe that Mavis truly believes that the unquestionably settled and straitlaced Buddy will actually leave his family for her, a ridiculously overcooked pipe dream that negates the shrewd, cynical, and world-weary-despite-her-ignorance hardass Cody otherwise creates. It’s a sad case of a sharp screenwriter falling slave to her flimsy concept.
It’s not, however, a flaw large enough to warrant missing out on the rest of the movie’s ample merits, many of which can indeed be attributed to Cody’s pen, but also Jason Reitman’s direction and Theron’s killer lead performance. Pairing again after the mad success of Juno, Cody and Reitman prove a canny team when it comes to capturing frank yet polished modernity, getting at truths of the here and now even if a certain excess of gloss denies them the full Americana humanism of someone like Alexander Payne. Reitman is the right filmmaker to visualize this material, his eye for current atmospheres and industrial, manmade textures a fine match for Cody’s pop-conscious voice (the film’s opening credit sequence sees Up in the Air‘s urban aerial shots replaced by close-ups on the gears and circuits of a Memorex cassette tape, its perpetual rewinding of Mavis’s favorite song a cool regressive metaphor to boot). Again working with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editor Dana Glauberman, Reitman looks to his familiar method of using tight frames and fast cuts to spice up quotidian processes, this time splicing into handsome pieces Mavis’s routine of hung-over beautification (he’s also no slouch when it comes to proper pop song placement, slipping in throwback tracks from 4 Non Blondes and Veruca Salt for pitiful retro flair instead of on-cue manipulation).
As the woman tasked to pilot Cody and Reitman’s ship, Theron is about as game as it gets, working cunty wonders with her million-dollar stinkface and ardently flipping off any modest boundary that might prevent her from wholly embracing Mavis’s reprehensible nature. Showing all sorts of visible scars of her character’s decades-old hot-girl apathy (not to mention fleeting glimpses of the wide-eyed serial killer that steered her to an Oscar in 2003), Theron never steps wrong as she trudges about in pink pajama pants and a Hello Kitty tee, endowing Mavis with a profound disinterest in anything beyond her tunnel vision. Even when Mavis dolls herself up for Buddy, proudly disregarding her inappropriateness in front of Buddy’s sweet wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and happily outshining her simple former neighbors, the breathtaking Theron still conveys an ugliness that’s somewhat miraculous, the misery of a pathetic beast pouring out from the bags beneath her eyes.
Somewhat atoning for a story-within-the-story device that’s way too on-the-nose for a comedy this uncompromising, Cody affords Mavis some slyly winning opportunities to share her biting, shiny-happy-people contempt with Matt (Patton Oswalt), the crippled hate-crime victim she ignored in high school, whose forced arrested development amplifies her spoiled, largely voluntary malcontent. But never is the pain and perverse pleasure of Theron’s turn more rewarding than in a vicious third-act blowout, which deflects its Screenwriting 101 inevitability with meaty revelations and a mouthful of hysterical harsh language, spat out spectacularly well by the statuesque actress. Leaving Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher in a cloud of chalk dust, Theron lays bare a bitch with a heart, however bruised and black that heart may be.