Thursday, December 15, 2011

Theron conquers in 'Young Adult'

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody reunite, but it's Charlize Theron who saves the day.

Young Adult begins in a high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, a building with the kind of one-bedroom apartments that have small terraces and that frequently are occupied by single people. Or maybe they're the kind of apartments people move into after a divorce.

One of those tenants -- Mavis Gary -- is lying face down in her bed, where she presumably wound up after drinking too much, something she does a lot.

As Young Adult unfolds, we learn that Mavis ghostwrites a once-popular but now fading series of books for young adult readers, the kind of tweens who've probably moved on to the Twilight books. Mavis is supposed to be writing the series' last book, but she's having difficulty because she's beginning to struggle with second thoughts about her life.

And it doesn't help that she's gotten an e-mail from her high-school sweetheart telling her that he and his wife have just had their first baby.

So Mavis packs a few things, and, in one of those rash decisions that could make sense only to her, drives back to her small Minnesota hometown to reclaim that erstwhile boyfriend.

Mavis thinks her task will be simple because she was (and still is) beautiful. Mavis and Minneapolis or dreary married life in Mercury, Minnesota? The choice, Mavis believes, is a no-brainer.

That's the backdrop for Young Adult, the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the duo that gave us Juno, a comedy about teen pregnancy.

Say this: Reitman and Cody are not shy about taking risks. They've built their movie around a character that’s both deluded and dislikable, but they've managed to hedge their bet because Mavis is played by Charlize Theron, who captures Mavis' haughty insensitivity, her budding alcoholism and her manipulative personality in spectacular, often funny fashion.

It never occurs to Mavis that Buddy might be happily married or that he and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) might be seriously committed to each other and to their young family.

Only one of the town’s residents – a geek played by Patton Oswalt – seems to see through Mavis’ facade. Having suffered a vicious beating in high school (a group of thuggish jocks thought he was gay), he views himself as damaged goods. Oswalt’s Matt is willing to tell Mavis how appallingly she’s behaving, not that Mavis cares.

Some of Young Adult is funny and some if it is sad, but there's also a slight stuck-in-a-rut feeling about the movie. Reitman's last movie, Up in the Air, was richer and more entertaining, and Cody still hasn't shed all the self-consciously clever tics that were apparent in Juno. On top of all that, the movie's central focus -- Mavis' boundless narcissism -- can make Young Adult feel as narrow as Mavis' worldview.

Now, not all of Young Adult is easy to take. A scene toward the end is so ugly, it’s painful to watch. It’ s supposed to be that way, but it serves as a kind of exclamation point to what we already know: Mavis is a wreck of a woman, so misguided that even some of her best verbal jabs don't earn her much sympathy.

Most movies are about characters who struggle to come of age. This one pushes, maybe a bit too hard, against the grain by introducing us to a woman who hasn't come of age and perhaps never will.

Still, Young Adult remains watchable because Theron makes an amazing Mavis, a woman who's ready to be completely irresponsible with the lives of others. Oswalt also scores as Matt, a decent, self-aware guy who sees the cliff toward which Mavis relentlessly is driving. Not everyone will share Matt's concern for Mavis, and some may even hope that when the she reaches that cliff, someone pushes her off.

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