Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gray, a 30-something prom queen who ditched the small Minnesota town where she grew up for the bright lights of Minneapolis. She's recently divorced, and the long-running series of young-adult novels she's been ghostwriting for years is about to end. Things aren't going well for the one-time it-girl of Mercury, Minn., so when she learns that her high-school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) just had their first baby, she decides that it's she and Buddy who are destined to be together. In what might be called a spontaneous High Fidelity moment, she leaves a one-night stand sleeping in the bed, piles some stuff into her car and drives home with no plan other than to return to the Big Minny with Buddy on her arm.
Does that sound like a psychological breakdown? The actions of a mean girl with arrested development? One who's been undiagnosed with borderline personality disorder? All of those things are true, as Cody takes a bit of revenge on the popular girl. You remember her, the thin cheerleader whose very existence made so many girls feel so insecure?
Though Cody clearly wants to go medieval on Mavis and her ilk, she also has some sympathy. It's to her credit as a writer that we do feel badly for Mavis, who's far more physically attractive than anyone with whom she shares the screen, especially Matt (Patton Oswalt), the hate-crime victim and high-school classmate who's the only person in Mercury she can talk to, despite how geeky he is and how nasty she is to him.
But that's also part of the problem with Young Adult. Mavis humiliates herself in ways that are both personal and public in her pursuit of Buddy. It's been a long time since I wanted to watch someone act that way in public. Public meltdowns are great on TMZ, but they're more painful than funny in real life. That may be what Cody and Reitman are going for, but it doesn't make it a joy to watch.
That said, Theron, who's always great, manages to make Mavis important and heartfelt, real enough that you pull for her even though she's just awful. Oswalt brings to life a character who's essentially an afterthought, the person from high school we wonder about as we sip appletinis at a reunion. And Wilson plays a fantasy, the boy who was once a king but is now a safe bet, a stable, small-town regular guy with whom a girl like Mavis could / would / should have cast her lot, instead of that jerk from the concrete jungle who broke her heart.
This cast of characters might have been funny at one time; now they're embarrassing and awkward. And while that might have been part of Cody's grand scheme, instead it feels as though we're enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of someone who's mentally ill. That's one of those things that's tough to stomach, even if it's something you might have enjoyed when you were a young adult.
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