After delivering the crowd-pleasing dramedies Juno and Up in the Air, Jason Reitman re-teams with Juno scribe Diablo Cody (blessedly eschewing the idiosyncratic slang dialogue that made her such a polarizing screenwriter) to deliver a bleak, crowd-numbing anti-comedy.
Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a bitchy former prom queen and now author of several disposable "young adult" novels (think Sweet Valley High, which Cody herself has been hired to adapt for the screen) who returns to her small Minnesota hometown for precisely one reason: to win back her old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who's now a contented husband and father.
From the get-go, it's clear to the audience, all the other characters, and everyone but Mavis, that her quest is insane. Why this self-conscious narcissist embarks on this outlandish endeavor without considering how ridiculous she must look is never believably established. The only answer is that loneliness, combined with her own fundamental shallowness, has caused Mavis to lose her mind. Once you go with that, you get the movie, even if it doesn't have much else to offer.
The plot is paper thin: It's obvious that Wilson's character, who's got a cool wife, an adorable baby, and an ordinary life with no complaints, will never cross over to the dark side. So the suspense-free Young Adult is essentially a wallow in 21st century thirtysomething misery. There are upsides to this: Mavis's fictional hometown of Mercury, MN is hardly the cozy small town that typically appears in Hollywood movies: filled with national chain stores (residents are thrilled that a Chipotle has just opened up) and housing tracts, it's an accurate depiction of the soulless Middle American landscape of today. And Mavis's life in the "big city" - Minneapolis - is a joke as well, with a messy apartment in a prison-like high-rise and fast food lunches. (Mavis and a friend drinking coffee out of cups labeled "McCafe" is one of the film's subtler jabs at her pretenses of success.)
With her poorly-received book series coming to an end, a growing problem with alcohol, and a lack of real friends, there is no hope in Mavis's life, and Young Adult doesn't bother to give her any. In this respect, it's hard to tell just what Diablo Cody thinks about her protagonist. Coming down from her own early peak (an Oscar for Juno) and subsequent disappointments (her script for Jennifer's Body was soundly trashed; her Showtime series United States of Tara was cancelled after two seasons), it's possible that Cody - who was also a high school prom queen and lived in Minneapolis for a spell - identifies with Mavis's predicament, if not with her character.
With Reitman's usual flair for unflattering visual authenticity and a fine cast of mostly unknowns - though Patton Oswalt is very impressive as a geek who was so reviled in high school that he was beaten by jocks within an inch of his life and today walks with a cane - there are a lot of interesting things about Young Adult. But for me, the film itself never jells. The scenes become repetitive, the drabness never lets up, and the emotions flatline, even during Mavis's climactic confrontation with, well, everybody.
In short, watching Young Adult is a deadening experience. If Reitman and Cody were aiming for an Alexander Payne-like examination of a modern American lost soul, they have instead landed squarely in Todd Solondz territory. Only without the ick factor.