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Young Adult: A Mean Girl fails to grow up

Patrick Wilson and Charlize Theron in a scene from "Young Adult."

AP Photo/Paramount Pictures

2 out of 4 stars


Director Jason Reitman's three first films – Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air – established the young Canadian-born director as a spiky satirist of Middle America, whether in corridors of power or high school. He takes a step backward in his latest film, Young Adult, reuniting with Juno's screenwriter, Diablo Cody, in a low-key, indie-style comedy that plays precariously close to an unfunny sociopathic case study.

The film is a showcase for Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a high-school mean girl who, at 37, still hasn't grown up. A former small-town prom queen who lives in a messy high-rise in Minneapolis, she makes a living ghostwriting a young-adult fiction series, Waverly Prep (along the lines of Gossip Girl). With her slouching walk, bad-taste scowl and condescending glare, Theron plays a familiar type in an unfamiliar gender: She's a deluded narcissist, like Bill Murray in What About Bob? or Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. While dodging editors' phone calls, Mavis watches a lot of Kardashians on TV, power-chugs Diet Coke, and keeps a small dog she neglects, just like a reality TV star might.

One morning Mavis gets a mass e-mail saying that her high-school boyfriend, the star quarterback Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has just had his first baby with his wife. What starts as an annoyance that she complains about to a friend over lunch turns into a full-blown identity crisis. Like the romantic heroine in one of her novels, Mavis decides to win back her true love. So she sneaks out of her apartment leaving a stranger in her bed, to drive to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., and save Buddy from domestic misery.

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High expectations are followed by a quick deflation. When her former boyfriend is not immediately available, Mavis goes to a bar to get drunk where she runs into Matt (sad-sack comedian Patton Oswalt), a chubby, disabled geek from her school years. Mavis barely remembers Matt, except that he was briefly famous for being maimed by a group of homophobic jocks who thought he was gay. Matt, a sardonic misfit who spends his time painting customized action figures, sees through Mavis, but still revels in the company of the statuesque beauty: "Guys like me are born loving women like you."

While screenwriter Cody still indulges in some pop-culture name-dropping (the unhip small-town folk have an improbable fondness for nineties' indie bands), the dialogue is sharp without the sitcom wisecracking that marred Juno. What hasn't improved is Cody's sense of structure or plausible character motivation. The Buddy story is developed and dispatched in a series of repetitive scenes, where Mavis's bad behaviour escalates in front of the two-dimensional local yokels. Each morning Mavis gets loaded, comes to life by afternoon and gets gussied up to visit the guileless, happily married Buddy, once more.

The climax comes at a baby-naming party amid spilled drinks and embarrassing revelations. The film's ending avoids triteness at the cost of plausibility, with a twisted joke that asks us to love Mavis, not despite, but because of, her irrepressible vanity.

Perhaps not accidentally, the character of Buddy's mother is played by Mary Beth Hurt, who in 1979 starred in the similarly themed, Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels), a bittersweet allegory of lost ideals. Idealism isn't on the table in Young Adult, a movie that, like its abrasive heroine, has an emotionally stunted soul beneath its superficial charm.

Young Adult

  • Directed by Jason Reitman
  • Written by Diablo Cody
  • Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson
  • Classification: 14A
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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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