‘Young Adult’: Me me me

December 6, 2011

People in Minnesota have this reputation for being “nice” that Diablo Cody seems determined to undermine – which she does in slashingly funny style in Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult,” opening in limited release Friday (12/9/11) before going wide on Dec. 16.

The film reteams the “Juno” duo with a script that’s less deliberately quirky – indeed, there’s very little that could be classified that way. Instead, Reitman and Cody tell the tale of a woman who, having zoned out for most of her adult life, decides that she can simply time-travel to her high-school years, cherry-pick a lost dream of grown-up life and transport it to the present. It’s all as simple as the cut-and-paste function on her computer.

Her name is Mavis Gary and, as played by Charlize Theron, she’s an uber-slacker who makes her living writing young-adult novels (think “Sweet Valley High” and the like) and her nights cruising for temporary company, from which she happily escapes in the morning.

Her dull, boxed-in life has one nagging intrusion: the editor who keeps bugging her for the overdue manuscript she owes her publisher. Then her computer is invaded by an email: an invitation to a shower for the new baby of her now-married high-school sweetheart, back in her small hometown.

So Mavis makes a young-adult decision: She’ll rewrite her life by swooping into that same little town unannounced, dazzle the guy (who she suddenly sees as the one that got away) and rescue him from what she assumes is his dead-end life.

In other words, she’s going to tempt a married guy with a new kid to run away with her. If she’s rescuing anyone, it’s herself – from the kind of life she’d never admit to anyone else.

Her hometown obviously has expanded, but in all the wrong ways. It’s the kind of Midwestern – make that American – burg that views growth as an influx of strip malls and the fast-food franchises, including the horror-graft special that Mavis refers to as a “KenTacoHut” (a combo KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut). Traveling with her tiny dog, she checks into a motel and calls that ex-: Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Buddy, surprised to hear from her after so many years, agrees to meet at the local sports bar.

But Mavis first runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a high-school classmate whom she doesn’t remember but who obviously still harbors feelings (lust, resentment) for someone who obviously was an unattainable blonde goddess way back when. She’s still capable of pulling off that drop-dead, hands-off look these days, though it takes a bit more effort.

From the distance of 20 years, however, Matt is able to shake off the spell and tell Mavis the one thing she doesn’t want to hear: Buddy is happily married with a new baby. Why would he throw that away just because Mavis swoops back into his life?

And that, in essence, is the conflict of the film: the reality Mavis works so hard to create in her mind, versus the one that keeps flying up to smack her in the face. Cody has a firm grip on the tension between the two and the ways this woman can compel herself to remain oblivious to the truth that is so plain to everyone else. But she is aware of it, because she keeps trying to tempt Buddy to make the first move – and he smiles and maintains a blithe blindness to her true intent.

Another thing Cody – and Reitman, who handles this material with a perfect, dry distance, instead of hammering the humor – get right is the difference between the way men and women react to Mavis. The men get all googly-eyed, remembering her as she was in high school and drooling over how hot she has remained (as compared to wives who actually are forced to live in the real world). But the women can spot a poacher from a mile away. The exception is Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who actually does embody the “Minnesota nice” when she meets Mavis – and maintains her sense of compassion even after Mavis’ intentions become clear.

The final thing to admire is the ending – one that goes against convention and which took courage to stick with.

Reitman has an outstanding cast, starting with Theron – alternately icy and clingy, with a terrific feel for the character’s casual cruelty. Wilson brings an open-faced earnestness as Buddy, a guy with none of the ambition or regret to which Mavis seems to ascribe him.

But the revelation here is Patton Oswalt as Matt, alternately craving and disdainfully clued in to Mavis. Oswalt captures the outsider’s longing for acceptance – and his surprise at his own craven response when Mavis actually acknowledges him – as well as his self-loathing for giving in to those long-buried feelings. It’s a complex and tangy performance, definitely worthy of an Oscar nomination, that will come as no surprise to anyone who enjoyed Oswalt’s performance in the cult hit, “Big Fan.”

“Young Adult” is a darkly funny trip down a one-way street. You know where it’s headed – but you can’t help enjoy ride anyway.

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