"You're better than this," Buddy tells Mavis when she's especially out of line in Young Adult, a queasy comedy about nostalgia and stunted emotional growth. But in its painful 90 minutes, Young Adult slowly makes it clear that Mavis, played unsympathetically by Charlize Theron, is certainly not "better than this." Mavis isn't better than anything. Mavis really is the worst.
When she finds out her high school ex, Buddy, and his wife, Beth, have just had a kid, Mavis, who lives in Minneapolis, decides to head back to her small hometown in Minnesota to steal Buddy away from Beth. Because Young Adult doesn't take any steps to explain why Mavis wants Buddy back, we're left to assume that it's just because she's a rotten person.
Or maybe it's because she's depressed. She wakes up facedown in sweatpants every morning, the TV still on from the previous night, and guzzles Diet Coke from the bottle to ease her hangovers. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who last collaborated on Juno, have such fun with these scenes that they seem to think there's some surprising juxtaposition taking place, dragging the android-pretty Theron through the dumps. But Theron is famous for taking roles that she uglies up for (Monster, North Country), so this game of having her slum it in Young Adult pays pretty low dividends. So few actresses ever really look busted when they're supposed to have hit bottom—think Kristen Wiig still glowing in the last act of Bridesmaids—that this could have looked new and unusual. Challenging, even. But the associations we have with Theron make Mavis' scuzziness seem tame.
Mavis is a ghostwriter of a series of novels of questionable merit and purported popularity for teen readers. She's stumped on her current assignment, and in one scene at a bookstore we learn that while her books are essentially worthless, if she were to sign them they'd be less than worthless. In that scene, she's positioned behind a table on which her books are displayed, the "clearance" sign on the front of the table hidden from her, as so much of what's really valuable in life seems to be. Mavis makes a habit of telling people she's embarrassed by how popular her books are. What's curious about the movie's treatment of Mavis is that we're never quite sure whether Mavis is aware that it's obnoxious to say this, or if she's even aware that it's not true. She also seems to think living in Minneapolis makes her a bona fide cosmopolitan intellectual. It's sort of like a running joke, but Young Adult doesn't really have running jokes as much as repeated embarrassments. Mavis' negative, self-delusional worldview is unappealing, and Cody and Reitman seem to identify with it even as they send it up.
Young Adult pushes Mavis inorganically toward a crisis in which it's explained to her how rotten she really is, but the scenes that finish out the story are surprising for how firmly they show self-realization eluding her. This is about a stupid woman behaving very badly, and it's rebelliously free of redeeming values. It risks seeming just as thick-headed and nasty as its main character, in the process earning the curious distinction of being so off-putting and cynical that it could force otherwise discriminating audiences to wish for the treacly comforts of a conventional happy ending. This movie may be unique in its presentation of a repellent protagonist, but defiantly hateful junk is really just as cheap and artificial as sickeningly happy junk.