Cracks show in Jason Reitman's first reunion with screenwriter Diablo Cody since their out-of-the-ballpark comedy "Juno" back in 2007. Reitman's signature bland approach to pseudo-comedy (see "Up in the Air") struggles to get traction with a story of stunted maturity that teeters on the brink of despicability. Cody's signature penchant for snarky dialogue (hear lines like "psychotic prom queen bitch") don't roll off the tongue nearly as spritely as they did from Ellen Page's character in "Juno." The story's overburdened theme that you can never go back to your hometown doesn't provide the wealth of comic possibilities the filmmakers imagine.
Former high school beauty queen Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) works as a ghostwriter for a Young Adult book series that's on the way out. She lives a lonely life holed up in her messy Minneapolis high-rise apartment where she picks at the bones of her faded youth while blowing deadlines. The 40-year-old basket case divorcee has a bald spot from compulsively pulling hairs from her scalp. She's still got her looks, but nor for much longer. An emailed baby photo of the newborn child of her ex-boyfriend of 20 years Buddy (Patrick Wilson) incites Mavis to pack up her little dog and go on a road trip to her crummy hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Mavis is on a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife—forget about the baby. Theron turns herself into a reverse Stepford wife mechanically repeating romantic moves her character made decades ago. She's an anti-heroine for manic depressive women the world over. It's impossible to feel empathetic for Mavis because her nostalgic fetishism is so insanely shallow.
Steady rounds of booze accompany our unreliable protagonist’s descent into delusional psychosis. A chance bar meet-up with high school locker-neighbor Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) provides some much needed lift to the movie. Oswalt gives a stand-out performance that redeems the film whenever he’s onscreen. Matt wisely advises Mavis against perusing her doomed plan of romantic recognizance. Therapy seems a better course of action. Matt’s crutch-walking status as the survivor of a gay-bashing attack that nearly killed him in high school marks him as an object of pity. He nonetheless manages to live a moderately satisfied life home brewing whisky and working as a restaurant accountant.
After a climax of public humiliation where Mavis gets significantly less justice than she deserves, she has a chat with Matt’s sister. The woman goes to great lengths to support Mavis’s condescending opinion of the locals. She pumps up Mavis as a feminist icon she frequently dreams about. The uncomfortable scene essentially reneges on the film’s promised catharsis. Perhaps Matt’s sister is just as stupid as Mavis believes everyone in the town of Mercury is.
“Young Adult” never finds its pitch of sardonic satire. You can feel the filmmakers and actors searching for it, but the narrative never gels. There are a few chuckles but a condescending through-line tilts toward vapid meanness for its own sake. Still, see the film for Patton Oswalt’s great performance. It’s the only thing the movie has going for it, but it's worth it.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)