Young Adult

This photo still provided by Paramount Pictures shows Charlize Theron in a scene from “Young Adult.”

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are taking a huge leap of faith with their latest collaboration, the offbeat and sometimes scintillating “Young Adult.”        

For better or worse, the director and screenwriter, who first worked together on 2007’s “Juno,” have created a motion picture that shatters our expectations, doesn’t contain traditional story arcs and transports us to an ugly place that most mainstream audiences will not want to visit.

The biggest risk they take of all, though, is centering their narrative around Mavis Gary, an outspoken, surly slob of a woman who gets even more despicable and cold as the film progresses and ultimately reaches its unorthodox conclusion.

For the most part, that gamble pays off, thanks to the phenomenal acting skills of Charlize Theron, who won an Academy Award in 2004 for her chilling portrayal of a prostitute-turned-serial killer in “Monster.” But in “Young Adult” she plays a different kind of monster, one who is stuck in a permanent state of arrested development and suffers from delusions of grandeur.

Mavis is icy, abrasive and selfish, but that’s what makes Theron’s character so refreshing and entertaining to watch. She’s just like a train wreck — no matter how gruesome it gets you can’t take your eyes off of her. And since you never know what kind of verbal venom will spill out of her mouth next, you hang on her every word and action. (You won’t get any examples from me here. That would ruin all the fun. It’s something you really have to experience for yourself.)

But because Mavis is in the hands of the stunningly gorgeous Theron, the blond-haired vixen is so much more than just an unpleasant one-trick pony. Theron, who wears a permanent scowl on her face, is so utterly convincing as Mavis shows the naive and delusional aspects of her personality that it’s not a chore to feel sorry for her. And that my friends is no easy feat.

Divorced and pushing 40, Mavis’ life is about as messy as her high rise condo that overlooks the skyline of downtown Minneapolis. The former prom queen is a ghost writer of teenager literature similar to that of “Sweet Valley High,” but now she finds herself struggling to complete the last edition in her series of once-popular novels. Maybe that’s because she wakes up almost every morning face down on her bed or couch hung-over, with lowbrow reality shows like “Kendra” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” blaring on the television in the background.

But Mavis doesn’t seem too concerned with her declining career when she receives an e-mail from her ex-high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) that includes the birth announcement of his first child.

Although he’s happily married to one of their old classmates, Mavis believes Buddy is still in love with her after all these years and that his online correspondence is a cry for help. Thinking that being with Buddy will make her complete once again, Mavis takes a trip to her hick hometown of Mercury, Minn., to recover what she views is rightfully hers.

While Mavis’ behavior does get a little exhausting and repetitious after a while, Cody helps break up that monotony with the inclusion of Patton Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf, the film’s moral center and voice of reason. Matt also attended the same high school as Mavis, but he was such a loser that she never seemed to notice him, even though they shared lockers next to each other for all four years. But she remembers him now, all because he was viciously beaten with a crowbar by a bunch of jocks who mistakenly thought he was gay.

There was a point in their lives when Mavis would have ignored Matt, but times have changed, and the two form an unlikely bond that provides the film with its most organic and touching scenes. Oswalt is mostly known for his stand-up routines and regular appearances on TV’s “The King of Queens,” but, as evident with 2009’s “Big Fan,” he is just as adept at taking on dramatic roles. Looks may be deceiving, but Matt is just as damaged and lost as Mavis is, and Oswalt is able to exhibit those internal cracks without giving off a single false note. You could say he’s the best thing about the movie.

But you could also say the same thing about Reitman (“Up in the Air”), whose slick and steady direction furnishes “Young Adult” with an attention-grabbing visual style. He makes the most out of every frame, and even the sequences that could have looked ordinary are rather innovative, especially during the opening credits when he cuts between Mavis singing in her Mini Cooper and close-up shots of the inner workings of her cassette player.

And with its intriguing characters and fresh, witty dialogue, you can just tell that Cody’s fingerprints are all over the script. She really has a way with making her lines sound like sweet music to your ears, but, similar to “Juno,” there are times in “Young Adult” when the discourse is too hip and flamboyant for its own good.

It will be a memorable day when Cody is finally capable of pulling back the reins just a little bit. Honest to blog. 

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Comments can be directed to Adam at adamt@wdtimes.com

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