Anyone who ever survived small-town or suburban high school knows someone like Mavis Gary, the thirtysomething psycho from hell I mean, That Girl You Went to High School With played with breathtaking bravura by Charlize Theron in the one-of-a-kind comedy Young Adult. Mavis was that prom-queen-pretty, popular, stuck-up girl in your class who barely registered your existence. Mavis, destined for success and so smug with her cute jock boyfriend, thought she was all that and a bag of chips. And for a while, in the years after graduation, you heard that Mavis was leading a way cooler life than you were, still stuck back in hometown wherever: She was a published writer, she had her own condo in the big city, stuff like that. In fact, Mavis' life was secretly not cool at all: Her city condo was a dump. She cranked out crappy, unbylined young-adult (get it?) serial novels for a publishing factory and the series was being canceled. A brief marriage had failed, Mavis drank too much, and she was lonely, with only her tote-bag-size Pomeranian for company. Hah!
Young Adult is an inspired collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman and a natural follow-up to their great success with Juno. The movie concerns what Mavis petulantly fighting adulthood even at the enough already! age of 37 does when she realizes that her life has already peaked, and that high school was as good as it gets. What she does is, she decides to drive from the big city (in this case, Minneapolis) all the way back to her dinky, disdained hometown (in this case, fictional Mercury, Minn.) to reclaim her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Why? To prove she can. To have a do-over. Never mind that Buddy is happily married to Beth (Twilight's Elizabeth Reaser), and a new father. Mavis figures that she's as sexy, pretty, and impossible to resist as she was when she wore Buddy's team jacket and the two fooled around. Mavis figures that she can roll back time.
Mavis is, no kidding, kind of crazy. And the one person who sees this clearly is one of those classmates she ignored completely back in the day: Matt, played with ferocious authenticity by the great actor-comedian Patton Oswalt (a regular on the Cody-created TV series United States of Tara). Matt lives in his own state of undescended adulthood, physically damaged years ago when he was the victim of a brutal high school beating. The two are twisted soul mates, and their relationship is one of the great, startling pairings in American comedy. Wilson, meanwhile, happily assumes the blurred contours of an aging high school athlete, while Collette Wolfe (who worked opposite Oswalt on the underrated, risky comedy Observe and Report) scores in a couple of small, important scenes as Matt's sister: Here's a stuck-in-Mercury alumna so disoriented by hatred of her own life and zip code (and so hopeless about bettering herself) that she worships every move Mavis makes.
The queasy brilliance of Young Adult lies in the movie's refusal to make Mavis so monstrously crazy that she poses no threat because she's obviously a cartoon and at the same time, the filmmakers' refusal to let Mavis off the hook at any time. The lady doesn't earn any hugging and learning moments as a reward for her humiliation. She remains irresistibly unlikable, the horror of her lack of self-awareness inextricably tangled up with the pitch-black hilarity of her predicament. The really pretty Theron captures that state of really ugly inner childishness (articulated so sharply by Cody) with such precision, it makes you want to hear stories of her own high school experience. It also makes you wonder how this singular movie got made Juno's quirky, dark material seems cutie-poo by comparison. Young Adult bumps along with nasty swerves, middle finger proudly in the air, toward an ending blessedly free of anything warm, fuzzy, or optimistic. Now that's adult entertainment. A–