A potentially disastrous tale of scheming, stalking and drunkenness, “Young Adult,” directed by Jason Reitman, isn’t dark or edgy enough to enable its comic material to achieve full sizzle. But it is funny, smart and on track as it goes on a warped journey with a horribly misguided protagonist.
Reitman, who also directed “Juno,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air,” makes films about people who aren’t quite as tough, cool or unbreakable as they envision themselves to be and who become transformed, but not too transformed, by meaningful human connections.
“Young Adult,” in which he reteams with “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody, is his mildest work to date, but no mushfest. Cody cuts the cuteness, and the total is an entertaining arrested-development story with refreshing twists.
Thirty-seven-year-old former prom queen Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a success as a teen-fiction ghostwriter but a disaster as a human being.
Living in a messy Minneapolis apartment with her dog, Mavis subsists on booze, fast food and empty sex. She is self-serving, manipulative, haughty and ill-tempered. Her maturity level resembles that of her book heroines, whose dialogue she cribs from real teen gab that she overhears.
Her wrongheaded mission begins when she learns that her high-school flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has become a father. Deciding that she and Buddy belong together, she heads for her hometown, Mercury, to reclaim him. Buddy loves his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), however.
Mavis also spends time with former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), who became permanently disabled when campus jocks, thinking he was gay, smashed his bones.
Although they existed on different social planets two decades ago, Matt, a self-described “fat geek,” and Mavis, a “psychotic” A-lister, remain stuck in adolescent gear and bond in self-derailment.
Like Reitman’s previous films, “Young Adult” isn’t as edgy as it thinks it is. It doesn’t take Mavis anywhere truly challenging. Cody’s screenplay sometimes suggests an inspired doodle instead of a fleshed-out story.
Yet it doesn’t collapse into one of those phony comedies in which a hardened urbanite goes to smallville and finds meaning in locals’ simplicity, and it doesn’t drag Mavis down redemption road.
As Mavis inaccurately views Mercury townsfolk as satisfied, and the small-towners admire her success and glamour, Reitman and Cody sharply explore the pursuit and illusion of happiness.
Theron, in sync with Reitman’s audience-friendly cynicism, gives the pathetically behaving Mavis the humanity necessary to keep us plugged in. Wearing a scowl of discontent, Theron is terrifically in character whether Mavis is shoving a doughnut in her mouth or responding self-importantly with “I’m an author” to anyone using the “writer” tag.
Oswalt is compelling as the sad, resentful Matt. His scenes with Theron’s Mavis, which involve self-pity, vulnerability and getting loaded, are inspired.
Playing Matt’s deceptively mild sister, Sandra, Collette Wolfe highlights the underused supporting cast.
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser
Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes