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Charlize Theron's Controlled, Razor-Fanged Performance in 'Young Adult'

Young Adult is as cynical and sad about the idea of nostalgia for teenage years as Juno was sweetly nostalgic about the ways that you can define yourself at that age.

Young Adult

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Collette Wolfe, Elizabeth Reaser
Distributor: Paramount
Studio: Paramount
Release date: 2012-03-13

In Monster, Charlize Theron famously won an Oscar after an astonishing make-up job (and yes, an indelible performance) turned her into serial killer Aileen Wuornos. In Young Adult, she completes a more subtle transformation, and it happens before our eyes, step by illuminated step. Several times during the movie, we see 37-year-old Mavis Gehry (Theron) prepare for a night out, which involves applying a flabbergasting amount of foundation, fake hair, and supposed beautification procedures. She shifts from raccoon-eyed, pajama-clad hangover to glammed up seductress -- back and forth, with alcohol aiding her transition back to square one.

Theron looks great, of course, but shows a remarkable lack of vanity in revealing how a woman of her age might labor to look even younger -- and how Mavis looks in her down time, disheveled and sucking Diet Coke straight from the two-liter bottle. It's a funny sight -- Young Adult is a comedy, at least nominally, though its makers have also characterized it as a sort of monster movie -- but far from the cutesy behavior often seen in comedies about career gals returning to their home towns. Theron is working with director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who last collaborated on Juno. No such breezy charm accompanies this one.

Juno was a lovely movie -- it's become weirdly underrated in the years since its release -- but it's nonetheless thrilling to see Reitman and Cody toss out the innate likability for their reteaming. In fact, Young Adult is as cynical and sad about the idea of nostalgia for teenage years as Juno was sweetly nostalgic about the ways that you can define yourself at that age. Mavis defined herself as a queen bee who would fly away from her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to better things in "the city" (in this case Minneapolis, or the "Mini-Apple", as Mercury residents refer to it, to eye-rolling from Mavis that protests too much).

As the movie opens, she is indeed living in the city, which consists largely of fruitless dating, lonely reality-TV binging, the aforementioned Diet Coke, as well as work (some; not a lot) on her writing. She's an author of young-adult books, but not the kind with her name on the cover; the kind who does work for hire disguised as a "special thanks" inside the book. After receiving a birth announcement from her high-school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), she mulls it over in her unkempt apartment and decides it constitutes a cry for help. She will return to Mercury and reclaim Buddy from a life of suburban misery.

In following Mavis to Mercury, Cody and Reitman tow a tricky line. They are aware of Mavis's delusions, her haughtiness and unearned sense of superiority, yet they don't create an easy tribute to small-town pastoralism, either; indeed, Reitman shows a stark eye for suburban sprawl. Mercury has little to recommend it -- lots of fast-food strips and dive bars -- but Cody and Reitman realize that this doesn't justify Mavis's condescension, or make her would-be cosmpolitanism less sad. As written by Cody and played, expertly, by Theron, she's stuck in a strange combination of nostalgia and derision: nostalgia for that derision, really, and for the sense that her life in Mercury was only the first act of a grand triumph.

Once back home, Mavis reconnects with a classmate equally stuck on his formative years: Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, excellent), crippled in a case of mistaken gay-bashing (the bashing, at the hands of some Mercury jocks, was real; his gayness was not). They become makeshift drinking buddies, and with Matt Mavis drops her fake smile and some pretenses of success, which is her way of being honest. She's an expert at polishing her surface, but can't lacquer over her toxic mean-girl dismissiveness. (On the Blu-Ray release, Reitman describes the film as a twisted love story, about Mavis and Matt finding someone who "hates what I hate.")

You may have gathered that Theron makes no great pains to make Mavis especially likable (although in her monstrous bluntness, she sometimes is). But she doesn't go over the top, either, containing so much disdain, anger, and heartbreak in slight narrowing of her eyes or quivers of her lips. It's a controlled, razor-fanged performance, all the more impressive for the moments where Theron lets us glimpse the pain and disappointment at Mavis's core.

Yet Young Adult is, in its way, also very funny. Cody is known for her slangy, quippy dialogue, and there are indeed wisecracks (delivered by Oswalt) and bitchiness (handled by Theron). But she wields a subtler skill with characterization and structure. Mavis's character occasionally feels a smidge too schematic, with her perfect dichotomy between a prom-queen past and lonely, alcoholic present, but Cody feels obvious empathy for what could be a high-school archetype. In a smart detail, Mavis's immaturity informs her writing: she has antenna for adolescent drama and pettiness, as we see in scenes where she overhears teenagers talking about "text chemistry" and absorbing their words into her drafts. She may inflate her importance as a ghostwriter for a dying YA book series, but she's not a pure hack; she understands her audience all too well.

As Mavis keeps her sights trained on Buddy despite Wilson's perfect ambivalence, the movie seems to be building toward revelation and/or breakdown. These things do happen, but Reitman and Cody, in the film's final scenes, chase them with a chilling denouement, leading to an ending that has been both praised for its learning-free blackness and dismissed as an empty, snarky rebuke to narrative convention. The movie does have some darkly comic shock value in its refusal to take an easy route to redemption, but I don't think the filmmakers are after a reductive kiss-off, either. Take another look at Theron's eyes in the final scene. Has she learned nothing, or is she struggling with what comes next?

A movie this small and prickly requires real directorial precision; deleted scenes on the disc illustrate Reitman's. He pruned away several minutes' worth of telling character moments for Mavis in Minneapolis, trusting what's in the final cut to do the job, while the longest scene, in which Mavis more clearly vocalizes her delusions about Buddy to her mother, makes the film's mounting pain too explicit, too quickly.

Reitman's commentary track includes his DP and first assistant director, but no Cody, a strange absence given the way Reitman refers to her as his "co-storyteller" with whom he shares an easy shorthand -- when she described a particular brand of cassette tape in the screenplay, for example, Reitman instantly knew what she was talking about, and emailed her a picture of it.

The track is informative about the technical aspects of shooting a small-scale movie, the kind with so much focus on acting and writing that details like cinematography and production design can be ignored. Reitman repeats some of the information, sometimes near-verbatim, at a filmed Q&A session with Janet Maslin; it's unclear if he's giving canned, over-rehearsed responses or simply has the commentary material fresh in his mind (he's not helped by Maslin, who dwells on a few bizarre obsessions, like which of the movie's two posters she prefers).

As such, the disc's "Anatomy of a Scene" feature is a more concise and perhaps even more instructive look at how the film came together. A simple dialogue scene between Theron and Oswalt in a dive bar is annotated with clips of alternate takes and line readings, comments from Cody and Reitman, and superimposed excerpts from the script. You can see the actors inhabiting the screenwriter's world with enough comfort to actually improve the movie as they go. On their own, perhaps Cody could be too quippy, Reitman too glib, and Theron too fiercely unlikable. Together, though, they bring out each other's talent.


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