There's something almost subversive about the way "Young Adult" picks apart the conventions of the contemporary movie comedy. Unexpectedly sinister and bleak, director Jason Reitman's film borrows from the romantic-comedy formula, but injects a note of realism by showing what happens when the antisocial pathologies of a broadly drawn comic character are let loose on real people.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a former prom queen who has risen beyond her roots in the small town of Mercury, Minn., to write (under a pen name) a series of successful young-adult novels. She teeters between being a bit of a lush and a full-blown alcoholic, just as she blurs the line between vanity and narcissism. She is drawn back to Mercury after learning that her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (played by Patrick Wilson), has just had a baby girl with his new wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).
Armed with steely determination and a suitcase full of skin-tight cocktail dresses, Mavis goes about trying to insinuate herself back into Buddy's life. In her storybook fantasy, Mavis would beguile Buddy away from what she imagines to be his benighted small-town existence and carry him back to her anonymous but upscale high-rise in Minneapolis. Not long after arriving in Mercury, the movie veers away from her point of view to zoom in on the mix of ridicule and pity that her vampish, inebriated behavior elicits from those around her.
This outside perspective comes mostly from former classmate Matt Freehauf, played with brilliant understatement by comedian Patton Oswalt. An outcast in high school, Matt still suffers the debilitating effects of a brutal beating endured at the hands of a group of athletes. Yet unlike Mavis, Matt has put some emotional distance between himself and his high school years. Though he's still angry, he's comfortable with himself, strangely proud of his geeky enthusiasms like recombining model action figures and distilling his own bourbon. Matt is a useful foil for Mavis because he likes to drink and he is drawn to the idea of palling around with the haughty former cheerleader.
Mavis is unprepared to face up to the fact that her ex-boyfriend, his wife and all their friends are happy with the lives they lead in Mercury. This is the point at which, in the typical movie, the fatuous protagonist would embrace these small-town virtues. To do otherwise would be to run the comedy off the rails - which is what happens in "Young Adult." The bottom falls out of the story as Mavis is forced to confront her own toxic personality. It's a credit to Diablo Cody's screenplay that the movie makes this transition without skipping a beat.
TITLE: "Young Adult"
CREDITS: Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody
RATING: R for language and adult themes
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS