Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a weekly feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
Mavis Gray, the protagonist of Young Adult, is a pretty terrible human being. Mavis, who's played by Charlize Theron, has the trappings of success, all the way down to the fluffy purebred dog, but inside lurks the meanest mean girl that ever stalked the halls of a high school. When she finds out via email that her ex-boyfriend, the amiable Buddy Slade, has a new baby, she gets a wild hair up her ass that they're meant to be and she must help him because he's so obviously miserable as a married dad in the 'burbs. Mavis has taken her work as a ghostwriter for a young adult series to heart like no other.
So, Mavis grabs an old mix tape Buddy made for her back in the day and drives back to her crappy hometown listening over and over to Teenage Fanclub's song The Concept. While she's plotting Buddy's fate, she ends up getting drunk and bonding with Matt Freehauf, a dude she never gave the time of day to in high school. Matt is also having a hard time of letting go of high school, and for some rather understandable reasons; he was viciously attacked by several classmates, brutally beaten, and left for dead, an incident that was initially pegged as a hate crime, but all charges were dropped when it was revealed that Matt wasn't gay.
"You're that hate crime guy!" Mavis says to him over shots at the local watering hole, her eyes finally widening with recognition. "Why didn't you just say that?" And then she envies aloud how much school he probably had to miss, because that's Mavis -- 37 and still jealous of the attention and time off from school you could get for life-threatening injuries.
Normally, making your main character unlikeable, especially a female character, is a huge gamble. Not all audience members want to root for the lead, but it can be an uncomfortable experience to get up close and personal with a twisted psyche unless you've really signed up for it. When you sit down to watch a horror movie like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you know you're gearing up to stare deep into the abyss, and by golly, that abyss is gonna stare right back at you. However, Young Adult is being touted as a dramedy, and as such, Mavis is a hard sell. Or she could have been, in less competent hands.
Instead, Mavis is intoxicating, and not just because she's awful, although there's that, too. It's hard to look away when she could say or do (and often does!) anything in a situation, from a baby shower throw-down to ragging on how her cousin's car accident, which left him in a wheelchair, ruined her Sweet 16. What makes her remarkable, though, is that she was written and portrayed as an actual human being. It's easy to make a female character terrible; make her a shrew, a castrating bitch, a humorless prig, whatever mix of stereotypes you'd like to grab out of the bro-tactular bag of creative tricks.
Look at Bad Teacher; there's almost nothing redeeming about Cameron Diaz's character, but there's also no hook, there's no small chink to get in there to make us at least the tiny bit interested or involved. And Mavis has plenty of hooks. How many other women and/or writers cringed when Mavis schlumped her way to the fridge in the morning to suckle at a giant bottle of Diet Coke or go out on errands wearing what are, at best, pajamas? Her apartment is an explosion of clothes and bottles of booze and other detritus, and whenever she opens up a blank Word doc, she writes a little bit, then checks her email, and in the background lurks shopping and online dating websites. Touché.
In a way that's probably not dissimilar to Cody, Mavis eavesdrops on teens and works their strange language into her books. To watch Charlize Theron's face transform from sullenly neutral to popular girl smiles to behind-his-back glares and back again is incredible, and while her prolonged adolescence can read a little too broadly funny, there's too much truth to her character to write off.
Young Adult is defiantly anti-Juno in its pace. The camera lingers on Theron as she sleeps face down in bed with reality TV blaring in the background, or when she stares into the mirror dully and puts on her makeup, or when she slowly and methodically pulls out her beautiful blond hair strand by strand. Jason Reitman's direction doesn't bring much to the table. As Peter Hall suggested, Bobcat Goldthwait would have been way more at home in this type of grim character study; he could have maybe taken it to an even darker place, and while it seems like he and Diablo could be a great team, it sounds like he's not such a fan of Ms. Cody.
Mavis isn't the only juicy character onscreen. Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson, doesn't really get going until the third act, but the small things he does and says, like quitting drinking when his wife was pregnant for solidarity, point to a warmer, larger heart. His wife Beth, played by Elizabeth Reaser, is totally kick-ass, like a chilled-out, grown-up Juno who plays the drums in a band of moms called Nipple Confusion. Matt, however, is a fantastic character, and he's beautifully portrayed by Patton Oswalt. Matt's bitter, and deservedly so, but he's also funny and honest and pretty much the only person to tell Mavis to her face how batsh*t crazy she is and how horrible what she's trying to do is. He's self-aware, and frankly he's a little bad-ass as well.
One might (and some will) argue that using Matt as a sort of blatant metaphor for being emotionally stunted is a cheap shot, and a callous one given the very real problem of bullying in schools today. But like Mavis, Matt comes alive in the hands of Cody and Patton. It's easy to paint them in broad strokes as a Mutt and Jeff sort of friendship, but there's more to it than that. And here is where we come to the biggest spoiler of all.
Maybe you saw it coming, but Mavis and Matt probably didn't expect to end up in bed together. After a brutal meltdown at Buddy and Beth's baby shower, which includes one of the few emotional missteps of the entire script, Mavis goes to Matt's. She's drunk, and she has wine all over her dress, so she takes off her dress and stands there in Matt's bedroom full of action figures and punk posters and teenage-era crap wearing nothing but those damn chicken cutlet-looking nipple covers and pantyhose and running mascara and asks Matt for his shirt. Yeah, the shirt off his back. And he gives it to her. Then they have sex. Really awkward sex. Heartbreaking pillow talk. Annnnd cut to the next morning.
Here's what Oswalt had to say about this scene in our interview. Both this and the following quote are from my transcription but taken out of the final article because the scene is so pivotal that to give it away without significant spoiler alerts (like the one at the top of this review!) would be a crime.
"I worked with an acting coach on this for months, this amazing woman, Nancy Banks, and I worked with a physical therapist, but that scene, no matter how much we went over that, I just realized there was no way to prepare for it. It would actually serve the scene and serve Diablo's script better if I wasn't totally ready, because Matt is not totally ready, and it is awkward and it is all rushing out of them, and also because that's the scene where they are literally and figuratively naked. They are beyond all cleverness. They are beyond all quippy-ness. They are almost nonverbal at that point. So I decided, you know, and I knew enough about the character at that point that I thought, I'm going to serve this scene by not being ready and by being awkward and by being uncomfortable, because that's what the scene needs. It's not what I need; it's what the scene needs."
Separately, Cody said, "It's a love scene to me, in a weird, sick way, and I really was looking forward to writing it. I was looking forward to it the way you look forward to actual sex. I was like, this is going to be good… It felt very romantic to me at the time."
And you know what? It is. It is romantic in the way that two f*cked-up humans finding sustenance in each other, and acknowledge and see each other in a truly intimate light, can be romantic.
We don't know what happens when Mavis leaves. Is Matt healed or destroyed? Does Mavis gain even an iota of self-reflection? We can catch a glimpse of it on her face, but then again, Mavis is the queen of fake outs and back stabs, especially to herself.