‘Young Adult’ (2011) review: Living in a past she doesn’t want to escape

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‘Young Adult’ a jarring comedy

Challenging the stereotype that a movie’s protagonist must be likable (or even redeemable), “Young Adult” and its lead, a brazen Charlize Theron, reach a breathtaking level of cynicism wrapped so neatly in a banal humor you’ll feel guilty for laughing at her misguided adventures.

Here is a character so cruel and conflicted with self-pity, so obsessed with her own desires, you wouldn’t have been surprised if this movie also was called “Monster” (for which Theron won 17 awards, among them an Oscar). And though she doesn’t delve to the same depths she did in 2004, she still has the same edge, the same thorniness in this bitter, bitter comedy she did in that troubling drama.

Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who together collaborated on “Juno,” take immense pleasure in introducing us to Mavis Gary (Theron), a 30-something-year-old trapped in her surroundings. A ghostwriter for a faltering teen fiction series who’s done well in the “Mini Apple” — i.e. Minneapolis — she derives satisfaction from her job. She drinks a lot, pulls at her hair and seems unaffected by others around her. She has an air of carelessness easily found in pretty girls, but it’s also burdened with a life unfulfilled.

But Mavis suddenly finds herself at a crossroad when she receives an email from a former beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who has just become a father. Here, in her spacious high-rise apartment, with the TV tuned to something Kardashian-themed, she hatches a plan to break out of her rut: return home and win back said former (married and fathered) beau, regardless of the consequences. And consequences will be had, because a plan so vain, so cruel, so stupid can only result in disaster.

So she heads out to Mercury, Minn., half-baked ideas and mixed cassettes in tow. On the road, Mavis plays an old mixtape from Buddy, fixating on “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub, which serves as the movie’s anthem. Though it evokes memories from better times, her fixation highlights a more troubling issue: her ability to move on, a theme that just continuously repeats itself in “Young Adult.”

Reveling in self-imagined destiny and speaking of soul mates, Mavis seeks to release Buddy from his domestic prison, because he can’t possibly be happy if he’s now a father. Her delusion only intensifies when she finds not everything is as horrible as believed it to be. Which is where the movie’s conscience comes into play.

Former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt, “Big Fan”), or, as Mavis calls him, “Hate Crime Guy,” epitomizes the unlucky lot in life. Forever damaged by a cruel high school incident, he carries baggage rivaling Mavis’, even if he handles it better. (A big nerd, he makes small-batch Bourbon and paints action figures.) In a good-faith effort, he seeks to discourage Mavis’ self-destructive ways, even if his methods tend to involve copious amounts of liquor. He has intermittent success.

Mavis does eventually get her comeuppance, coming to terms with her deleterious actions. But even as she is humiliated, the movie extends her a measure of humanity: not by justifying her shocking actions, but by treating her honestly. You’ll never like Mavis, but you may just pity her enough not to hate her.

Four adult stars out of five.

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Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from "Young Adult." (Photo credit: Paramount Pictures)

Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from “Young Adult.” (Photo credit: Paramount Pictures)

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