“Young Adult” has been called a hilarious comedy; though I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t disagree more. It has also been faulted for not having an appropriate resolution; again, I’m in the minority. Screenwriter Diablo Cody (best-known for her Oscar-winning “Juno”) doesn’t kowtow to Hollywood tradition and provide the standard happy ending, but the one she does come up with feels entirely appropriate, given the characters and their situation. And Charlize Theron, winner of a Best Actress award for her role as a serial-killer in “Monster,” tones the nastiness down somewhat—nobody gets literally murdered, though a few get verbally carved up—to put herself in line for another Oscar nomination.
Theron plays small-town Minnesota girl Mavis Gary, who has escaped from fictional (I think) Mercury to live the glamorous life as a writer in Minneapolis. But her apparently enviable existence is actually, like the inside of her high-rise riverfront apartment, a mess. The series of young adult novels she has been ghost-writing is about to end. She’s a 37-year old divorcee who has little time for the men she meets. And she has just received an e-mail with a picture of her ex-boyfriend’s new baby, reminding her of what she doesn’t have.
So her scheme to return to Mercury and reclaim the studly jock, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), far-fetched as it sounds, goes into motion. She climbs into her Mini-Cooper, loads a cassette that Buddy made for her into the player, and heads west to the “outstate” boonies. Cody and director Jason Reitman continually provide reminders that, for all her evident success, Mavis is still stuck in her past, a “young adult” in everything but chronological years. The insertion of voice-over excerpts from the novel she’s writing makes the point that her main character is, well, Mavis.
Avoiding her parents’ house, she checks into a Hampton Inn, surveys the fast food strip, and winds up at the local saloon. There she runs into her former high school locker neighbor, Matt (standup comic Patton Oswalt), whom she finally recognizes as “the hate-crime guy.” Beaten up for being gay (he isn’t), Matt has been crippled, physically and psychologically. Besides having this in common, he and Mavis both love bourbon, which Matt distills in his garage. Otherwise, she’s one of those prom queens whom guys like Matt are born to hopelessly love.
But Matt, who serves somewhat as Mavis’s conscience, warns her off happily-married, new daddy Buddy—a warning that she scorns, coming from this loser. It takes a failed and public encounter with the real Buddy, as opposed to her left-over adolescent fantasy, to disillusion Mavis for good. The outcome is not “feel good” or “lesson learned,” really, so much as “unhappy truths revealed.” There’s not a whole lot of healing and not much of a comic resolution; if the ending is uncertain, rather than neat, well, that fits.
Theron delivers Cody’s slashing lines with force, at the same time implying Mavis’s loneliness and insecurity, so our response to her is complex—as it is to real people. Ditto for Matt, whose character excites neither pity nor admiration. (At one point, he bitterly recalls another boy’s accident’s having stolen the spotlight from his own wheelchair.) Oswalt and Theron’s drunken exchanges dominate the movie; the others lack the energy their characters generate, diminishing some of the film’s impact.
“Young Adult” is rated “R” for language and one sex scene, though the latter is scarcely erotic. Actual young adults may not get the problems the movie addresses, nor may they find it very funny, given the amount of bitterness involved. However, older viewers should appreciate watching an identifiable, original character attempt to come to terms with her past and finally, tardily “graduate” and commence.