Any dirty-minded movie starring an actress like Charlize Theron as the bringer of dirt has the right to be a lot of fun. Young Adult has trouble with this right, because in addition to making Theron’s character, a Kardashian-acolyte author of tween novels, a lot of fun to watch, it makes her a lightning rod for all of the shame that can be heaped onto its narrow view of commercialism. The movie isn’t outwardly intended to be a skewering of commercial culture — it’s a study in the character of one of the culture’s victims, if anything — but Young Adult is nevertheless an extremely commercial movie. It has quite a bit of sympathy for its main character and still insists on lambasting her for her shallowness. The hypocrisy is very damaging to a well-made movie that might have been a great black comedy.
Theron plays Mavis Gary, a woman as beautiful at 38 as she thinks she was at 18, back when she reigned over the small town of Mercury, Minnesota as one of its most popular teenagers. Mavis has improbably become a moderate success, getting paid to ghost write teen novels (Waverly Prep), so she’s moved to Minneapolis to be where the action is. As the movie opens, she’s ambling through her high rise apartment putting off both a hangover and her latest book. Her favorite procrastination method, familiar to any writer, is checking her email, on which she finds an invitation to the baby shower of a high school flame (Patrick Wilson). Thinking he’s the long lost love of her life, Mavis heads home to ensure trouble for everyone she once left behind.
She does make her trouble for the old flame, but her attentions are diverted, in the movie’s best thread, towards Matt (Patton Oswalt) a restaurant manager and part-time distiller of fine whiskey whose hard-won optimism nearly gets through to Mavis when they meet one night in the town’s only cool bar. She vaguely remembers that Matt was repulsive to her back in high school, but 20 years of faking her way through life have made it at least acceptable to associate with fat guys, so long as she’s not yet resigned to sleep with them. Twenty years on, the “pretty bitch” and the “fat nerd” become friends. To the small extent that Young Adult finds Mavis’ heart (and that’s only one of its goals), it’s in her relationship with Matt.
It’s necessary to note that the engine behind this superficially sincere black comedy is not its director, slick wonderboy Jason Reitman, but its writer, hyper-successful self-promoter Diablo Cody. In writing (and doing interviews for) this movie, Cody has performed the admirable, though perhaps unintentional, act of laying herself bare, which should be the primary goal of any writer. It’s not hard to draw a connection between Cody and her creation, not least because both have written successful properties with teen girl protagonists. But while Cody makes Mavis as witty as she once made Juno — while allowing us a guilty peek into the slothful comfort of her lifestyle — she’s undeniably torn between lampooning this type of woman and offering her sympathy.
Like Mavis and Matt respectively, Young Adult is a strange mix of gleeful narcissism and sobering morality. In movies, you can usually depend on one to follow the other, which is great, so long as the proportions are correct. Let them dip and dive out of whack and you get the movie equivalent of occasionally checking the news while vegging out on your couch all weekend, as if it were perfectly justifiable to relegate yourself to uselessness if you dip your toes into some semblance of intelligence now and again. Of course it is, so long as you take what you read to heart. Periodically, Cody lets Mavis check in, but never long enough for us to tell whether she’s serious about growing up.