Saturday, March 17, 2012

Young Adult (2011) ***½

In the world of great villains, you’ve got Hannibal Lecter, you’ve got Auric Goldfinger, and now you have Mavis Gary. Charlize Theron is deliciously, unapologetically evil in her portrayal of Mavis as an emotionally stunted YA fiction writer out to get back her high school sweetheart, Buddy.

Mavis is a hot mess. She cranks out pulpy teenage fiction while living in a filthy apartment. On the outside she looks just like Charlize Theron, which guarantees her at least short-term success with men, but on the inside she is genuinely a bad person, with the emotional maturity of a popular, pretty, high school mean-girl. Which is probably why she is so good at writing novels for teenagers.

An email announcing the birth of her old boyfriend’s first child triggers something, and Mavis returns to her hometown, where she reverts to her old high school self while shamelessly trying to break up Buddy’s happy marriage. It’s like the evil twin of the movie “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The genius of Mavis as a character is how absolutely oblivious she is to other people’s emotions and reactions. It doesn’t occur to her at all that others will be disgusted by her attempt to break up a happy family. One even wonders if she has some form of autism, a possibility alluded to when Buddy’s wife explains her work with autistic kids. (I know, could they have made Mavis’s competition any more of a saint?) Normally in a movie like this, Mavis would go through something traumatic which would make her grow as a person. Then she would live happily ever after with the dorky guy she ignored in high school, the one who’s been under her nose all along. I’m going to provide a spoiler here and tell you that that doesn’t happen in “Young Adult.” Mavis gets a look at the blackness of her soul, stares into the abyss of self-awareness and change, then says, “Nah, that’s not for me. I’ll just keep on being a huge mess.”

This is a fun twist on the rom-com, late-coming-of-age genre, although as with screenwriter Diablo Cody’s other work (see “Juno”), the cleverness feels overly deliberate at times. Even the central premise of Mavis’s defiant refusal to grow up feels a bit arch. What I notice in Cody’s movies and writings (mainly articles for Entertainment Weekly) is a literary cleverness that she doesn’t want anyone to miss. Her work is like a meal at a high-quality chain restaurant like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The food is good, but there is just a hint of a flavor of something pre-packaged, something that tastes exactly the same at a restaurant in the next town. Cody’s quips and word coinings are fun, but you do get the sense that they will taste exactly the same in the next movie.

That’s really my only complaint. Otherwise, “Young Adult” is a fun black comedy. Now, when people tell Charlize Theron they loved her in that movie where she played a monster, she’ll have to ask, “Which one?”

3.5 stars out of 5

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