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Sociopaths in Love

by John Rodat on December 21, 2011

Young Adult
Directed by Jason Reitman

I remember seeing Diablo Cody, writer of Young Adult, interviewed by David Letterman around the time her debut, Juno, won the Oscar for best original screenplay. She was entertaining Dave with a story about getting word that she’d been nominated, and referred to the early phone call as coming at the “ass crack of dawn.” Dave giggled in hayseed-geek titillation and made her repeat the phrase. Somehow, I’d managed to miss Juno up to that point; that pretty much sealed the deal for me.

I like Dave Letterman as much as the next guy, but his assessment of “delightfully edgy chick” doesn’t go far with me. I could no more buy into Diablo Cody as transgressive voice than I could Drew Barrymore as interesting actress: Letterman-approved “ass cracks” and tabletop tit flashes notwithstanding. I’m wondering now if I should revisit Juno. Cody’s got talent. Young Adult is hardly a perfect movie; it’s not even a great movie. Honestly, I’m not even sure that it’s pretty good; but it is interesting, and I’ll take that.

Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, the most recent ghostwriter of a formerly successful series of young-adult novels. The franchise has fallen out of favor and has been canceled. Mavis is struggling to finish the final installment, the pointlessness of which seems emblematic: Mavis drinks too much, lacks meaningful relationships (she is cavalier and careless even with her dog), and possesses few social skills that would help her gain any. She is vain, curt and competitive. So competitive, in fact, that she takes the birth announcement e-mailed to her by her high-school boyfriend’s wife as a cue to return to her small suburban hometown and rekindle the romance.

It is predictably a disastrous effort. But the evolution of Mavis’s character (or the devolution) from stock film bitch to something closer to true sociopath is perversely rewarding. Theron does a fine job of keeping the entirely unlikeable Mavis watchable; and the filmmakers provide her with an apt counterbalance in the well-cast Patton Oswalt as Matt, a former classmate crippled by a brutal and misguided hate crime. The scenes with just these two characters are, far and away, the best in the movie. There’s something marvelously bleak and true about these malformed, misfit characters. They’re never wholly sympathetic, but the actors deftly bring us in to their marginalization without softening them too much.

There is one gigantic misstep, though, that nearly ruins all that well-crafted wretchedness. In a speech that smacks of an Al Pacino moment, Mavis provides a back-story motivation, an a-ha moment, that struck me as false and too convenient. I was disappointed that the Cody backed off the unrepentant presentation of an unsavory but very real-seeming character to fall back on a shaky psychological root-cause justification. It felt cheap and, as presented, unbelievable.

By movie’s end, though, the characters are restored to behaviors that are true to the internal realities. It doesn’t entirely offset the ingratiating explanation, but it helps. And I probably shouldn’t hold it against the film, forever. And Juno’s probably way better than that “ass crack” joke.