Theron playing a different ‘Adult’: Actress takes on lighter role but still finds the dark
When actors ask an audience to love them, they risk the possibility that the audience will eventually stop. Neediness is unbecoming in a star. Sally Field had it. Tom Hanks flirts with it. And Jim Carrey’s need to be taken seriously, then not that seriously has nearly ruined him. Charlize Theron’s desire to be appreciated beyond her beauty landed her in tough, unsmiling movies like “Monster,’’ “North Country,’’ and “The Burning Plain.’’ We took her seriously, but her idea of seriousness became loaded with misery - tremendous struggle and suffering and work. She was no longer an actress. She was a pack mule.
So it’s a relief to see her in a breezy comedy like “Young Adult.’’ The movie doesn’t weigh that much, but it has a kind of point-blank piquancy that has gradually seeped out of American comedies, which now are mostly going for broad, topical gags that rarely venture into the relatable shadows of human behavior. “Young Adult’’ has a dark side, and Theron’s attraction to it initially feels like a stunt. The pseudo-successful writer she plays - Mavis Gary - has all of Theron’s blondness and beauty, but as we discover how ugly her heart is, you’re nervous that all Theron’s doing is “Monster’’ from the inside out.
But Diablo Cody wrote “Young Adult,’’ and it’s an improvement over “Juno,’’ her first script. Here her sharpshooting is aimed at perpetual-adolescent archetypes. Mavis, for instance, is a “psychotic prom-queen bitch,’’ according to a former victim, and Theron plays the part in a bulletproof vest. Mavis is imperious and not particularly worldly. Her principles are based on a hilarious disdain for reality and stem from Cody’s cleverly conceived misunderstandings of tone. When Mavis, in one of her milder drunken rants, tells a pudgy, crippled former classmate named Matt (Patton Oswalt) that she’s snuck from Minneapolis back into her tiny Minnesota hometown essentially in order to steal a married ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) away from his family, her rationale is this: “Love conquers all. Haven’t you seen ‘The Graduate’?’’ To which all one can ask is: Has she?
Mavis has ghostwritten a series of formerly popular teen books. She’s in the middle of bitterly writing the final installment, which, according to the narration Mavis provides from the contents of her laptop, appears to be based on a self-serving interpretation of the havoc she wreaks. It’s possible that Mavis saw “The Graduate’’ when she was a girl and has been hanging onto the youthful misperception that Benjamin Braddock broke up his sweetheart’s wedding out of love. He was desperate. Alas, so is Mavis. She doesn’t get that the final shot of the movie is: Now what?
Mavis has trumped up her adolescence so that her delusions of grandeur insulate her from the most painful truths about herself. She’s a supreme underminer. When Mavis enters Matt’s house, which he shares with his sister (Collette Wolfe), she says, “I love your décor. Is it shabby chic?’’ She’s also still the sort of grown-up high-school girl whose idea of sympathy is, “Oh my God. Embarrassing.’’ (With her sweatpants, hoodies, purse-dog, UGG boots, flannel, and general air of “whatever,’’ she’s Minneapolis by way of mid-2000s Santa Monica.)
All of Mavis’s ideas of human behavior come from life as it’s lived in popular culture. And yet Cody’s familiar exaggeration of that life often feels true. Matt becomes a version of the oddball buddy (in school he was disfigured in a beating, makes his own bourbon, and still paints collectible figurines), trying to reason with Mavis’s conscience without realizing she doesn’t really have one. But that relationship is the movie’s only concession to emotional connection and even then it’s spiked. The bond they create doesn’t feel plausible (he permeates her firewall of snobbery too easily), but there’s ironic dignity in Oswalt’s performance. He owns Matt’s pathos until he’s the least pathetic person in the film.
Cody attempts to provide some psychological and neurotic background for Mavis’s nuttiness (she plucks her hair, for instance, and neglects to tell her parents she’s in town). But we don’t necessarily need to know why Mavis is damaged to see that she is. Theron has that covered. The sight of her standing in one of those KFC-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut things - it’s a Kentacohut - wearing flannel and a pair of sagging jeans made me want to cry, but I was already laughing.
Some of the achievement of “Young Adult’’ is in the nimble way Cody and the director Jason Reitman use lightness not to laugh at the limitations of small-town life (which they treat a touch too harshly) but to capture the pity of prematurely peaking in life. The characters here dramatize a modern existential dilemma for generations of people who are getting older but who are also afraid to mature.
Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants’’ is being held up as a kind of paragon of this sort of comedy of responsibility. I doubt “Young Adult’’ will receive the same accolades. It’s not as handsome or as smooth (Reitman did smooth in “Juno’’ and “Up in the Air’’) but Cody and Reitman have the more daring comedy. The final sequence of “Young Adult’’ is devastatingly committed comedy after Payne’s heart.
At some point, Theron takes a long sniff from a tube of craft glue. It’s a juvenile high. She turns Mavis’s pathology into kaleidoscopic narcissism. It’s a tightrope walk similar to the one Laura Dern just performed on the HBO show “Enlightened,’’ which seduced you into watching a difficult character dig herself out of trouble she caused. This movie doesn’t have a shovel. But Theron doesn’t need one. The deeper Mavis’s hole gets the more psychotic force Theron gathers. This actress is poised at the same “Graduate’’ moment as her self-destructed character. Now what?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.