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), now a contented husband and father.
From the get-go, it's clear to everyone but Mavis that her quest is insane. Why this narcissist embarks on such a pathetic endeavor without a smidgen of self-awareness is never convincingly explained. The only answer is that Mavis's loneliness has combined with her fundamental shallowness to make her lose her mind. Once you go with that, you get the movie, even if it doesn't have much else to offer.
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 go to the dark side, so absent any "will he or won't he hook up with Mavis" suspense, Young Adult is mostly just a wallow in 21st century thirtysomething misery.
There are upsides to this. For instance, Mavis's fictional hometown of Mercury, MN is hardly the cozy small town that Hollywood loves. Filled with chain restaurants – 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. Mavis's life in the "big city" – Minneapolis – is a joke as well: her ivory tower is just a messy apartment in a prison-like high-rise, and she sustains herself on fast food. (Mavis drinking coffee out of a "McCafe" cup 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 alcohol problem, and a lack of real friends, there is no hope in Mavis's life, and Young Adult doesn't offer 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 – at least 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 impresses as a geek so reviled in high school that he was beaten within an inch of his life, and today walks with a cane – there's a lot of interesting things about Young Adult. But 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.