WEBTAKES: Young Adult
Reviewed by Maria Garcia

Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary

Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary

Produced by Jason Reitman, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, Mason Novick, and Diablo Cody; directed by Jason Reitman; screenplay by Diablo Cody; cinematography by Eric Steelberg; art direction by Kevin Thompson; edited by Dana Glauberman; music by Rolfe Kent; starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Matt Freehauf, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Jill Eidenberry, and Collette Wolfe. Color, 94 min. A Paramount Pictures and Denver and Delilah Productions release.

Young Adult is all about YA author Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), so much so that if every other member of the cast disappeared, the resulting one-woman comedy would be just as entertaining. Director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) might have called it “All About Mavis.” As it is, Young Adult is mistaken for a portrait of arrested development, rather than the story of a woman of outstanding beauty and manifest intelligence, born in a working-class suburb of Minneapolis, who makes it as a writer in the big city. The price of that success is a few bad habits from high school that Mavis can’t shake. Absent such complexity of character, and Theron’s perfectly calibrated performance exposing the movie’s subtext, Young Adult would be a remake of Working Girl.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s (JunoJennifer’s Body) Mavis is thirty-seven, the kind of girl voted homecoming queen in high school, and now the ghostwriter of a once-popular young adult fiction series. A sleek divorcée who regularly drinks herself into oblivion, Mavis nevertheless has little trouble attracting male attention. When the film opens, she is on deadline, and finding every excuse to get away from the book she’s writing. An email message from Buddy (Patrick Wilson), her high-school sweetheart, relieves the drudgery; it announces the birth of his first child. Mavis clicks several times on the attached picture until she becomes convinced that she must return home to Mercury, Minnesota, in order to wrest Buddy from his boring suburban life. In the long Hollywood tradition of blonde home wreckers, Mavis packs her slinky black dress.

At first glance, Mavis seems at odds with her studio-era predecessors, whose past made them “dames” or women with outsized ambitions, sympathetic because of their looks, but punished for their amorality. Cody simply turned these wonderful stock characters—Linda Darnell in Forever Amber or Bette Davis in Jezebel—inside out, illustrating in Mavis that stereotype’s unpronounced psychological dimension. Mavis’s narcissism makes her a wry comedic character, hilariously unhinged, and possessed of a few novel coping mechanisms. She suffers from trichotillomania—she pulls out her hair from the roots—and is sloppy, binges on junk food, and mistreats her dog. In Mercury, she transforms into the peerless, ill-fitting bombshell she was in high school. She felt safe then, above the fray, and, up until now, that is where she has remained. Mavis’s circumstances, played for comedy in Young Adult, actually satirize the predicament of every iconoclastic woman whose aspirations forced her to leave home.

Following an Academy screening of Young Adult in New York City, Cody, Theron, and members of the supporting cast took audience questions. When asked about the autobiographical aspects of her screenplay, Cody, who attended college in Minneapolis, replied that her first two movies might be categorized as YA, and that as a female screenwriter interested in pursuing women’s stories, she is an oddity in Hollywood. That riposte got applause, but it was Theron’s answer to a question posed by the panel’s moderator which received the most exuberant audience response. The moderator opined that in real life, few women would count Mavis among their friends, and asked Theron what prompted her to accept the role. Maneuvering conspicuously in her chair to face the other woman, Theron said: “I like Mavis.”

Outlandish projections by some onto Mavis’s personality—she is an example of the narcissism that plagues American society, she’s a bitch, etc.—are superficial and ultimately insupportable. She is unloved and nearly forty. Theron’s Protean qualities reveal Mavis’s constructed personality, borne not of good looks or confidence, but rather of longstanding self-doubt. Accused of being a “slut” in high school, Mavis’s retort is that she was normal. She probably was not, and isn’t now, but neither is the insufferable, polyester fleece-clad lot in Mercury who obviously failed her. At the baby’s naming ceremony, when Mavis’s dreams are dashed, and in the view of her friends and family she gets her comeuppance, rightly, she rails at them. Recounting the sad history of her senior year, Mavis unmasks Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Buddy’s sympathetic wife, as the last in a long line of people whose bland mediocrity she threatens. Mavis learns the only real lesson she needs, which is that there are no ruby slippers.

Like Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby (1938), who methodically stalks Dr. Huxley (Cary Grant) despite his engagement to Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker), Mavis says and does anything that comes into her head to win her man. Mercurial and inventive, she switches strategies and clothes several times, in the end, at the naming ceremony, opting for innocence in a dress Melanie Griffith might have worn in Working Girl (1988). Cody’s screenplay does not measure up to either of these earlier films, mostly because her supporting characters are out of TV sitcoms. Matt (Patton Oswalt), Mavis’s reality check for high school, is positively maudlin; crippled in a brutal crime, he makes plastic models of superheroes. Reitman’s casting compounds the problem; Oswalt is deadpan, and Patrick Wilson’s Buddy could be mistaken for a prop.

Reitman, a by-the-numbers Hollywood director in his second collaboration with Cody—the first was Juno—puts over this problematic story with a skillful edit by Dana Glauberman, although there is not much to admire in Young Adult in terms of originality in cinematography or production design. Theron’s wardrobe changes (by costume designer David C. Robinson), on the other hand, are clever, and consistently differentiate her from the Mercury mob. Only two performances aside from Theron’s are worth noting, Elizabeth Reaser’s, and Collette Wolfe’s as Sandra, Matt’s sister. Wolf, who gets only minutes of screen time, sends Mavis back to Minneapolis in one of the most skillfully rendered sequences in the movie. If Mavis’s rejection of Sandra in that scene seems harsh—she asks Mavis to take her to the city—just remember what happened to Margo (Bette Davis) when she took pity on Eve in All About Eve. Mavis wisely hugs her pooch because, for it, life is all about Mavis.

Maria Garcia is a New York City-based writer.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.