In theaters Friday: The Hunger Games
In the recent comedy Young Adult, the talented Charlize Theron once again transforms herself, this time into the walking, talking definition of a “hot mess.”
As a big-mouthed, self-obsessed fiction author whose popularity is on the wane faster than that of her fading teen drama novels, Theron sets her sights on the glory of her past and aims to win back her high school boyfriend and achieve the happy ending that has always eluded her. The fact that he is happily married and a new father are mere details she won't let stand in her way.
She's an alcoholic trapped in a depressive state of arrested development.
She's 37 and still longs for the days of high school when she was at the crown of the teen social structure, a prom queen chased after by the guys and feared by a cowering hoard of female rivals and wannabes. Her return to her small town from the big city is welcomed with all the whispers and attention of visiting royalty, but only a pinch of the reverence.
Her reign is over.
The film starts slowly but eventually finds an offbeat rhythm thanks to the arrival of Patton Oswalt, the diminutive comedian who gives his most affecting on-screen performance here as the partially-crippled bullying victim and former classmate who strikes up an unlikely and uneven alliance with Theron upon her arrival. Oswalt is her friend and ombudsman, but Theron's reactions to his sage advice only reveal how deep her shallow nature runs.
“You should see a therapist,” he tells her after she reveals her home-wrecking intentions.
Advice like this is deflected like the flicking of ash from a cigarette. And therein lies the problem with Young Adult. It is too static.
Theron's author doesn't learn anything. Neither she nor the book she is writing take any insight from her struggles. In fact, the only writing she seems to get done comes from snatches of overheard conversations she steals and transforms into dialog on the page.
Writer Diable Cody of Juno acclaim has made a screenplay that gives up after the climactic confrontation. It offers no resolutions for any of Theron's relationships or her sinking career. Cody and Theron have crafted a character as thin as the pages of the pulp fiction she writes for teens. She is incapable of seeing herself as the problem and therefore incapable of changing.
As a character study, Theron does a superb job of bringing every alarming quality and manipulative tick to cursing, boiling, eye-rolling life. But as a story, Young Adult is a runaway failure. Theron is annoying, vulgar, excruciating and still pretty in a damaged beauty queen sort of way, but there is nothing beneath the surface, nothing going on behind her eyes or in her heart, and therefore no weight to her actions. In the hands of a more thoughtful writer or diligent director Theron's character would have triggered the appropriate resonant drama and change.
Even if Ellen Page's Juno MacGuff had a change that came out of left field, at least it was there. Cody and director Jason Reitman's previous, Oscar-winning collaboration Juno was a tale crafted in a far more detailed and relatable way. Unfortunately, Young Adult stands as Reitman's least successful film to date in a young career that includes stellar entries like Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air.
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