In a way it’s fitting that Young Adult is the last film I’ll review this year, because it’s also the last film I’d encourage you to run out and see on the basis of its pedigree. As everyone knows, it’s the work of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated on 2007’s Juno. As everyone who does buy a ticket is likely to discover, to their considerable surprise, it is far less fun — and, in fact, a comedy only in the loosest sense of the word.
The problem clearly is on Cody’s end. Reitman is an exceptionally talented filmmaker and makes the most of the material. His career has maintained an upward trajectory, while the writer’s, unfortunately, has more or less nosedived. While he was following up with hits such as Up in the Air, she was following up with misses such as Jennifer’s Body, a Tinseltown punchline of almost Gigli proportions.
Her latest is not about to turn things around. I’ve watched it a couple of times now and can’t shake the feeling that Cody undertook the project without a clear vision of where she wanted to go with it. The result is a mostly unsatisfying patchwork of ideas, styles and tones.
Charlize Theron gives a game performance in the role of Mavis Gary, a former small-town Minnesota prom queen and mean girl who now lives in Minneapolis, where she ghostwrites a YA fiction series. The early scenes give the impression that Cody’s plan was for a quirky romantic comedy showcasing her idiosyncratic flair for characters and dialogue.
In one scene, for example, Mavis listens in on a conversation between young store clerks about text messages one clerk and her boyfriend sent each other simultaneously. She jots a note on the pad she carries and later, in her apartment, types on her laptop that her novel’s heroine and her true love share “textual chemistry.”
Theron’s character is divorced. So what’s the romantic angle? Well, here’s where things get creepy. Mavis receives an emailed baby announcement from her high school beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who still lives back in Mercury with his wife and new daughter. She decides it’s some sort of sign that she’s supposed to return to her hometown and rescue him. “It’s like he’s a hostage,” Mavis tells a skeptical friend. And that’s the movie: Mavis loads up her Mini, checks into a Hampton Inn and shamelessly attempts to insert herself back into Buddy’s quiet, happy life.
When she’s not busy trying to break up Buddy’s marriage, she’s usually getting hammered with a pudgy fellow named Matt (Patton Oswalt), who had the locker next to hers all through high school. Naturally, Mavis initially has no memory of him, and, naturally, he’s always worshipped her. Even though their instant friendship feels utterly contrived, it does make possible the picture’s few believable moments, as Oswalt’s character acts as the audience’s stand-in and voice of reason.
He does everything he can to convince her that Buddy is content and she should leave him alone, but Mavis is not to be deterred. In time, it becomes clear she’s both an alcoholic and a delusional to a clinical degree. And that we may have bought a ticket to a comedy, but what we’re watching has little by little morphed into something closer to a psychological thriller, minus the thrills. By the final act, we’re about one boiled bunny away from Fatal Attraction.
I’m not sure what the point is here. Cody throws the viewer an occasional comic bone but, ultimately, offers zero reason to care about this troubled, fuzzily sketched character or what becomes of her. It’s one of the year’s most perplexing spectacles — a film about a walking, talking trainwreck that’s nothing short of a trainwreck itself.