Theron unleashes her inner dude
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
A funny thing has happened to Mavis Gary, the title character in "Young Adult," a dark comedy from "Juno's" writing-directing team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman.
Not that anyone is laughing at Mavis. Not much, anyway. Though marketed as a comedy, this film is too creepy and acerbic to be consistently comic.
Mavis, played with perfect pitch by Charlize Theron - in a role that calls for her to be beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside - is a 37-year-old divorced writer facing the cancellation of her popular series of young adult novels. Lonely and depressed, Mavis shuffles around her apartment in sweat pants, swilling booze, eating fast food, watching bad TV and having meaningless sex, all the while making insensitive comments about other people.
She's not just going through an emotional crisis. Apparently, she's also turned into a dude. (Notwithstanding the Hello Kitty T-shirt, cute red Mini Cooper and lap dog named Dolce.)
Whatever the nature of her transformation, it's one on the order of Theron's "Monster" character. The actress wholeheartedly embraces Mavis's dark - and, let's face it, somewhat guylike - side with gusto. It's a performance that's as hard to look away from as it to watch, especially when Mavis decides to return to the Podunk where she grew up in order to brazenly seduce Buddy (Patrick Wilson), the guy she dated in high school. Never mind that Buddy is now happily married with a brand-new baby.
Admittedly, there are some laughs here. Most come courtesy of Matt (Patton Oswalt), the overweight-geek former classmate of Mavis who improbably reconnects with her upon her arrival in Mercury, Minn. Matt is the kind of guy who was invisible to the cool kids like Mavis in high school. He spends the rest of the film trying to talk her out of her scheme through a barrage of sardonic wisecracks.
It doesn't work, but it's amusing to listen to, as well as ultimately rather moving. Oswalt, a comedian-turned-actor, turns in a performance worthy of his co-star. In high school, Matt was the victim of a brutal high-school beating by jocks that has left him cynical and in crutches - but not without the ability to feel his old classmate's pain.
They make an odd couple. Mavis is physically perfect, but dangerously crazy. Matt's body may be mangled, but his brain and his heart are still working. Together, they almost make one functional human being. (The film's title refers equally to Mavis, whose immaturity is obvious, and to Matt, whose hobbies include creating customized action figures.)
Matt is also the only character who really, truly sees Mavis. I said she's hard to watch, and that applies to the other characters in the film just as much as it does to us in the audience. No one in "Young Adult" - not Buddy, his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), or Mavis's own mother (Jill Eikenberry) - is able to see how deranged Mavis has become, until it's almost too late. She's not cute-crazy either, but disturbingly damaged, pulling her hair out in clumps.
Though Reitman exhibits overall mastery of the film's sour tone, "Young Adult" at one point skirts melodrama by mere inches, in a climactic showdown at Buddy's house between Mavis and the Mercury townsfolk in which her character's dark history is revealed. Generally speaking, though, there's enough grit in the film's gears to keep the forward motion from ever getting too smooth.
It isn't the relationship between Mavis and Buddy that drives "Young Adult" anyway. Rather, it's Mavis and Matt - and the sweet, unexpected turn that their friendship takes - that leads to the film's greatest rewards. Matt may be the only character who's able to look Mavis in the eye, but she's also the only one who really sees him.
Contains obscenity and sexual dialogue.