Diablo Cody is one of the few screenwriters whose name regular people even recognize, let alone have an opinion about, so the release of “Young Adult” — her third feature, after her Oscar-winning “Juno” and lackluster “Jennifer’s Body” — attracts more attention than usual. Will she continue in the vein of the other two, manufacturing clever slang for quirky characters that will strike some viewers as catchy and others as grating, or will she branch out? To put it more bluntly: is Diablo Cody a one-trick pony?
One of the disarming surprises in the determinedly dark comedy “Young Adult” is that the dialogue sounds almost nothing like the stuff Cody is known for. The few instances of cutesy language manipulation are acknowledged as such, and are there to represent what the main character, a writer of teen-girl-oriented novels, thinks teenagers sound like. (They DO sound like that, of course. Because they all saw “Juno.”) Yet it’s not accurate to say that the film doesn’t feel like a Diablo Cody movie, either, because it has many of the same themes as the other two, including adolescent angst, pregnancy, messed-up girls, and an uncomfortably close examination of modern womanhood.
So instead of being off-putting to a lot of people because of its self-consciously snappy dialogue, “Young Adult” will be off-putting to a lot of people because of its irredeemably loathsome main character. That would be Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old Minneapolis woman who makes a living ghost-writing a popular young-adult fiction series and is a hilariously abrasive rhymes-with-witch. Played with admirable fearlessness by the normally very likable Charlize Theron, Mavis has the self-absorbed shallowness of a teenage girl. She’s fixated on celebrity culture, she drinks Diet Coke for breakfast, and she gossips like a 17-year-old.
Her state of arrested development is epitomized by her ongoing obsession with Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), the jock who was her boyfriend in high school … almost 20 years ago. Now living a humdrum but happy life in their dumpy hometown, Buddy is married and has just had a baby. Mavis takes this as a sign that NOW is the time for her to act. She sets out for Mercury, Minn., to reconnect with Buddy, break up his marriage, and steal him away.
Let’s be clear here. I’m not reducing Mavis’ more nuanced actions into a glib one-liner. She really intends to get Buddy back, and states it outright to Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a loser from high school whom she runs into her first night back in town. What’s more, she thinks success is not only possible but inevitable, that Buddy still yearns for her and is unhappy in his current situation. She believes this despite having zero evidence that any such thing is true. In short, she’s delusional and pathetic.
Usually, the only way a character like this can strike us as funny is if she’s two-dimensional — that is, if she’s played strictly for laughs. If we start believing her as a real human being, we’ll stop laughing and start feeling sorry for her. The bold risk undertaken by Cody, Theron, and director Jason Reitman (Cody’s “Juno” collaborator) is in going for three dimensions anyway. They let us laugh at Mavis’ ruthless, snotty, self-destructive behavior for a while, then force us to peer inside and see what made her this way. That process is squirm-inducing, to say the least, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding it too unpleasant to be enjoyable. (Mavis is like the realistic version of Cameron Diaz’s character in “Bad Teacher.”) On the other hand, you might marvel at how audacious it was to even attempt such a stunt. It would have been a lot easier to make a movie about a woman who’s cartoonishly malicious.
I landed somewhere in between. Theron’s performance is bravely unselfconscious and, lest we forget, frequently very funny. Like many actresses who are beautiful, she doesn’t get juicy comedy roles very often, and you can see her striving to get everything she can out of this one. Her opposite is Patton Oswalt, a non-beautiful performer who does comedy almost exclusively but who gets to exercise some impressive dramatic muscles here as a man with physical damage to go along with his emotional scars. Theron and Oswalt complement each other in a way that’s more satisfying than you’d expect.
But while I love a good dark comedy as much as anyone, this one doesn’t have enough payoff to justify the arduous experience it puts us through. Mavis’ journey as a character — where she is at the end in relation to where she was at the beginning — is more admirable as a theoretical exercise than as an actual thing that I’d want to watch. Growing pains are rough. The pains of not growing are even rougher.
B (1 hr., 34 min.; )