In recent years, American comedies have lost their way. Instead of eliciting engaging, prickly characters that resonate, Hollywood has become stuck in a rut, churning out bland, tedious and sex-obsessed comedies that offer little or no substance (think Bad Teacher and The Hangover Part II). Diablo Cody, in her third feature as screenwriter, subverts this new-fangled tradition with Young Adult, a film that ventures deep into the relatable shadow of human behaviour to pitch-perfect avail.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), an egotistical and reprehensible ghost writer of an ever-diminishing young adult series, has hit a road block in her life. Disillusioned and at a loss, Mavis is spurred into action when she catches wind of her high school sweetheart’s (Patrick Wilson) new responsibilities as a husband and father. Unknowing of the reality check awaiting her, she returns to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota in a bid to save Buddy from his assumed affliction and relive her glory days as a high school prom queen bitch.
There’s plenty to hate about Mavis’ self-serving intentions and unsavoury personality traits, but Cody makes it clear that it’s a life she chose for herself (she was popular in school, had a seemingly normal upbringing and found moderate success as a writer). Cody establishes from the offset, with Mavis sprawled out drunk on the bed in her one-bedroom apartment, that she’s not interested in how Mavis became the person she is, but more in how she needs to face her past in order to accept her reality. Theron’s performance itself is monumental not only in its excruciating honesty, but in how she’s able to carve out some semblance of hope and warmth from such a loathsome torpedo of a human being.
Most of her journey to acceptance comes in the form of Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former high school friend who acts as her voice of reason, and a handful of one-scene characters who add short, sharp bursts of truth and comedy at every turn (Collette Wolfe as Matt’s sister Sandra, who shares a stand-out moment with Mavis towards the film’s conclusion, is a particular highlight). It’s an interesting dynamic, and it works to tremendous effect by further accentuating the fact that Mavis will forever be set in her ways and not changed by anyone.
Overcoming the lambasting that came hand-in-hand with Juno’s sparky immaturity and the tonal inconsistencies evident in Jennifer’s Body, Cody has risen above herself to deliver a screenplay that’s not only the best work of her career, but also validates the overwhelming hype she received. It’s clear that she’s found a particular style that suits her piercing voice – one, when paired with Theron’s distinguished ability to elicit humour from even the most unattractive places, is taken to new heights.
This is an uncomfortable, unflinching comedy that works in opposition to Juno’s lighthearted tenor, and credit should be awarded to director Jason Reitman who carefully treads a fine line between comedy and drama. His honed, character-attuned direction feels entirely suited to Cody’s writing style and acts as a perfect progression to the themes and ideas explored in his last effort, Up In The Air. Everything about this film is stripped back to basics, adding a level of authenticity and detail that heightens the emotional impact Young Adult has on its audience: a rare feat considering the depravity its protagonist revels in.