The arrested adolescent man-child has become a fixture in contemporary comedies. Like most right-thinking feminist film types, I blame Judd Apatow for this. Fortunately, we're beginning to see a countervailing narrative: there are arrested adolescent women out there, too. Jason Reitman and his muse, Diablo Cody, take a look at one of them in Young Adult (2011), and it's like gazing into the abyss. Young Adult is funny, though it's not a farce like the similarly themed and structured Bridesmaids, but it's also kind of a horror story, with a completely psychotic central character and a bitter view of mid-American banality.
Young Adult follows Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) as her life implodes. She's coming out of a divorce, she's the ghostwriter of a series of young adult novels that are coming to an end, and she's become obsessed with her old high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who has just sent her a birth notice for the first child he's had with his wife. Mavis decides to take a trip back to her small Minnesota hometown with the perverse idea that she'll steal Buddy away from his wife and all will be hunky dory. Her pretext is the invitation to the baby's naming ceremony. When she makes it back to town, her every interaction with Buddy is an exercise in awkwardness, but she clings to her delusion like she'll drown with out it. In on her scheme is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who she meets in a bar on her first night back. Matt was the kid who had the locker next to her, a victim of a horrifying hate crime that has left him disabled and living with his sister. Matt is a sharp cookie, though. He sees right through her. They strike up an uneasy friendship, though two people couldn't be more different. When Mavis's delusion comes crashing spectacularly down, she turns to Matt, and then back to her empty big city life.
This sounds a bit like it embraces a cornball, salt of the earth attitude toward small town versus big city, but it does no such thing. Small town America is shown in Young Adult to be just as vapid and empty as Mavis's version of big city life, in which she drinks too much and watches too much reality TV. Small town America, on the other hand, is a wasteland of chain hotels, "KenTacoHuts," and unchallenging opportunities mostly faced by mediocrities. The only person in the movie who seems to get any joy in life is Matt, who brews custom hootch in his garage that he names after Star Wars locations and builds custom action figures. Mavis, on the other hand, can't let go of who she was in high school. She's trapped herself in adolescence through the expedient of writing young adult novels in which she is constantly re-living her glory years, though, in her tirade at the end of the movie, we find out that her glory years were a trauma, too.
In truth, Young Adult follows a kind of predictable narrative. As I was watching it, I thought it resembled a couple of Alexander Payne's early films. Like those, Young Adult is laced with arsenic, but also like those films, it follows a familiar narrative arc that erupts in a scene of profound humiliation for its protagonist. One wishes that the structure of the screenplay was a bit more adventurous, but what can you do? It's otherwise pretty good, even if the movie itself is kind of unpleasant.
What keeps you watching is Charlize Theron. It's hard for me to imagine another actress so willing to completely subvert her own beauty in a movie like this. She's not playing ugly--not at all. Theron already did that in Monster. Though, on second thought, maybe she is, because Mavis Gary is a close relative to Aileen Wuornos. There's a sickness in her soul and you can totally see it in Theron's eyes, even surrounded by the wildly inappropriate glamour girl trappings Mavis brings with her. Then the movie deconstructs the glamour girl by pulling back the veil and showing us the process. There's a scene late in the movie where Mavis isn't quite naked, but she might as well be, in which she stands in front of the camera in panty hose and pork cutlet silicone falsies that is as brutal a deconstruction of beauty into sheer ridiculousness as you will find. Theron, as I say, is completely fearless here.
Of course, if you're looking for a tidy lesson to be taken away from the movie, you're out of luck. The filmmakers send you on your way with a bitter homily on how much small-town America sucks. We've already seen how big city America sucks. Basically, we're all screwed.