By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Ex-girlfriends don't come any crazier than Mavis Gray, who does everything except boil a bunny to prove it. Twenty years after high school she's still madly in love with the jock she dated then. Mavis is obsessed with being together forever with Buddy Slade. His wife and infant daughter will just have to deal with it.
In a more timid movie than Young Adult, Mavis would stir up trouble for 90 minutes then realize she has been a fool for love and move on. Director Jason Reitman and especially screenwriter Diablo Cody have something more diabolical in mind. Young Adult makes a viewer gape and cringe while laughing at a central character with no redeeming qualities except her looks and the fact that she doesn't murder anyone.
At times it seems that's inevitable, given Charlize Theron's brilliantly abrasive and abusive portrayal of Mavis, and Cody's script peppered with hints like Buddy greeting her with "Hi, killer." The movie's climax suggests Mavis' next move will indeed be deadly, and that might be funny, too.
Mavis is a beautiful mess from the start, a blocked ghostwriter of teenage romance books who never grew up herself. She's coming off a messy divorce, with a publisher's deadline she can't meet and a list of depressive bad habits. The last thing Mavis needs is an email announcing the birth of Buddy's daughter. The first thing she does is hit the road for Mercury, Minn., the hometown Mavis couldn't wait to flee, to rescue Buddy from a fate she's certain is worse than death.
What she refuses to realize is that Buddy (St. Petersburg's favorite son Patrick Wilson) is perfectly happy with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), living nicely naive in Mercury. Mavis is constantly reminded of that by another former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), still a lumpy mama's boy carrying the scars of high school bullying. "You're the hate crime kid," Mavis says, and Matt shrugs, fully aware that that's the only thing about him worth remembering.
The growing bond between beauty and the geek is where Cody mines her sharpest lines and odd outsider themes. Matt listens to Mavis — anyone speaking to him is a gift — and in her warped mind that's enough to justify her position. Oswalt's sad, sarcastic performance will be a revelation for anyone who missed the stand-up comedian's turn in Big Fan, and confirmation of his skill for those who didn't.
Theron's not-exactly-passive and certainly aggressive performance is scary good, exposing vast sadness inside a sociopath, turning Mavis' obsession into bracing comedy. Cody created an intensely unlikable character here, the opposite of her upbeat pregnant teen Juno but with equal pop sarcasm in the dialogue. Theron plays it casually cruel, with eyes that flash and narrow at the slightest resistance to Mavis' quest.
Young Adult is comedy at its darkest, with the added discomfort of making the worst person in the movie also its most magnetic. That's a daredevil act for everyone involved, including the audience, with expectations dashed at every turn and replaced by outrageous humor. It's the most unsettling nice surprise of 2011.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.