Somewhere along the way, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) just gave up. But how did she wind up here, living in a high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, waking up seemingly every morning in a hung-over stupor to an unwritten page of drippy fiction for high school kids?
Over the course of Young Adult's brisk hour and a half, we learn all about Mavis, and we learn a little more about writer Diablo Cody, too. Mostly, though, we learn to appreciate Charlize Theron's surprisingly immutable sense of dark comedy. Although it probably would have served her better to show this side of her ability before she transitioned from beauty-queen starlet to Oscar winner, Theron has done some comedy before. Granted, it was on half of a season of Arrested Development, a show that too few people ever watched, but still.
This film, however, gives Theron a real chance to take the sort of risks with comedy that she has with heavy-hitting drama like Monster and North Country. Mavis is more than a subpar writer with an alcohol problem; she's damaged goods, perpetually looking over her shoulder for her misspent potential to sneak back into her life.
Rather than address her downward spiral head-on, she chooses another path: When her ex-boyfriend's wife sends a mass email announcing the birth of their daughter, Mavis decides to head home and show Buddy (Patrick Wilson) what he's been missing out on all these years. Her strategy, in essence, is to steal a happily married man from his wife and infant child.
On her first night in mythical Mercury, Minn., Mavis runs into another old classmate at a bar. At first, she doesn't remember Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), but then it dawns on her that, as a senior, Matt was bludgeoned within an inch of his life by the school jocks, because everyone thought he was gay. Fun times. A few drinks into a night full of them, Mavis begins to see a kindred spirit in Matt, perhaps because they are both defined, at least internally, by what happened in high school.
The rather unconventional relationship between Mavis and Matt becomes the heart of Young Adult, albeit a cold one. We do learn why Mavis can't seem to let go of the past, specifically her past with Buddy, but in this cutting, well-written comedy, it's the worst-handled bit of business.
After redefining—even if just for a moment—the way movies structure dialogue with Juno, Diablo Cody became a popular punchline for her esoteric style and slacker characters. In addition to not being very good, her follow-up, Jennifer's Body, suffered from the double backlash of people being tired of hearing about Cody and people being tired of Megan Fox. But here, reteamed with Juno director Jason Reitman, she finds her bearings again, delivering potent comedy with none of the artificial aftertaste of her Juno script. That's not to say it's a better screenplay or movie than Juno, just that it doesn't feel like you need to personally know Diablo Cody to get some of the language being thrown around by the characters.
The big takeaway, though, is Theron. She has, over and over again, demonstrated that she doesn't mind being ugly onscreen. She'll add weight; she'll pile on prosthetics; and she will portray almost-irredeemable people, because it's more interesting that way. Mavis Gary is a bitch when we meet her, and no amount of looking like Charlize Theron could change that. Even after Diablo Cody plays her hand, we still don't come away liking Mavis: We understand her better, but she's still a wreck of her own making. Unlike Matt Freehauf, she hasn't been able to accept where she is. But to her credit, Theron is in on all the jokes, including the ones at her own character's expense.