Young Adult is the second collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, and it highlights both their strengths and weaknesses. Cody's ear for sharp dialogue is on display here, but so is her weak characterisation and unconvincing plotting, while Reitman's gift for getting the best out of actors unfortunately comes packaged with the glib shallowness of his filmmaking. The pros just about outweigh the cons here, though, and as someone who found Juno irritating and Up in the Air enjoyable but entirely forgettable, it's nice to see Cody and Reitman making a film that has a little acidity and awkwardness in it, even if the end result isn't entirely satisfying.
Credit is due to Cody and Reitman for staying true to the monstrousness of their protagonist and refusing to make any cheep bids for audience sympathy. Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron) is a fascinating, deeply screwed-up character. Once idolised by her peers in high school, Mavis's life has now reached a dead-end. She writes low-quality/high-volume teen fiction for a series that is now waning in popularity, and she spends much of her time crashed out in front of the TV, having woken up next to the previous night's drunken one-night stand. It takes a blast from the past to shake Mavis out of her listlessness; an email from her high school boyfriend Buddy and his wife announcing the birth of their first child. For whatever reason (the film rather bodges her motivations) Mavis suddenly decides that she and Buddy were always meant to be together, and she hops into her car to head back for Minnesota, the town she grew up in and left behind as soon as she could.
Mavis doesn't take a minute to consider the morality or ramifications of her actions – her delusional belief that Buddy will ditch his new family and restart the relationship they had twenty years earlier is amusing but also a little unsettling. Young Adult could just as easily play out as a dark Fatal Attraction-style thriller as a comedy, with Theron's magnificently self-absorbed performance in the lead role being as unsettling as it is cringeworthy, as she acts with blithe cruelty and dismissiveness towards anyone who contradicts her own sense of purpose. There's something strained about Mavis's entire appearance though; from the Hello Kitty t-shirt and pink accessories to the glamorous clothes and makeup she dons to ensnare Buddy. She always seems to be trying too hard to be the person she thinks she needs to be, but who is the real Mavis Gary? Even the books she writes end up bearing the name of the series creator rather than her own.
The problem with having such a complicated and compelling character at the centre of the film is that it risks showing up just how thin the rest of it is. Despite Patton Oswalt's heartfelt and good-natured turn as lonely geek Matt, a former classmate of Mavis crippled in a misguided hate crime, the supporting characters don't really have enough about them to avoid being blown away by Theron, and Cody seems increasingly uncertain about what to do with her prize creation. There are some fine scenes here – notably Mavis's attempt to autograph her work in a bookstore, or her final plea to win Buddy over at his wife's baby shower – but the film starts to lose its way in the final act as Mavis's interactions with all around her grow less and less convincing. Young Adult finally collapses in a badly misjudged finale, when Collette Wolfe, as Matt's sister, delivers a speech that feels both false and condescending, and the film ends quietly in a flat, half-baked fashion. Some rewrites and a stronger directorial hand would have surely been enough to craft a picture capable of supporting its marvellous central performance, but it seems Cody and Reitman still have some growing up to do.