Fail the conquering hero

Patrick Wilson and Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult'

Charlize Theron preys on
her clueless high school lover.

The search for greener grass lies at the restless heart of Jason Reitman’s latest scab-picker, Young Adult. Re-teaming with his screenwriting golden girl Diablo Cody (Juno), the pair zero in on the slacker generation and its pride in its own arrested development.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a ghost writer (“Author,” she’s quick to correct us) of a series of failing youth novels with an affinity for Diet Coke breakfasts, a toy dog named Dulce, and an aversion to cleanliness and order. She’s as unimpressive at dating as she is at writing — a hack at both — because her partners tend to be grown-ups who do icky things like philanthropy. Now approaching 40, Mavis is still stuck in high school, both literarily and emotionally. When she receives an announcement from her old beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), of the arrival of a new baby girl, Mavis sees it as a call for help, a chance for her to reclaim her lost love from a miserable marriage and an anchor-weight infant, despite Buddy’s own blissful maturity and devotion.

Reitman is a whiz with details and the opening sequences are a symphony of anachronistic paraphernalia (the screech of Mavis’ cassette player as she repeatedly rewinds and replays the same mix-tape will surely ring familiar to the over-30s crowd), illustrating the 1990s emotional void in which the author has encased herself. When she’s not drinking whatever’s at hand, she’s sniffing the nearest glue bottle or snarfing fast food (yet she miraculously maintains a supermodel figure). Her come-hither grin masks the fact that she’s the most dispirited person in the room at any given moment, even as she wonders how the upbeat, happy-go-lucky Buddy can muster a smile when he must be so obviously dismal.

Cody is more restrained with her cutting wit here than with her Oscar-winning debut, seemingly parodying her own reputation as a hip, young writer. Mavis is the anti-Juno, a Petra Pan who never grew up. If Cody and Reitman have a defect it is being too overt in their intentions. Mavis is even given her own personal Greek Chorus in the form of Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate and infatuate known to Mavis as the “hate-crimes guy” for the crippling beating he took at the hands of the school football team. Her oblivious glibness toward Matt’s handicap (“Didn’t you get to miss a bunch of school?”) only highlights her alienation from a world that’s moved on. As things fall apart, Mavis becomes more direct, and whatever subtext and plausibility that remains is torpedoed in the final act.

Still, Reitman — unlike critical darling Alexander Payne — has a way of making his unlikable characters accessible. We laugh at them through gritted teeth, wondering when the emotional spinout will hit. Where Up in the Air showed us that some people learn too late, Young Adult shows us that others never do.

Goes great with: Postcards from the Edge (1990). Speaking of emotional spinouts, Mike Nichols’ take on Carrie Fisher’s life in the shadow of her movie-star mother is less cringe-worthy but no less honest, with a tour-de-force performance by Shirley MacLaine as screen legend Doris Mann (standing in for Debbie Reynolds) and Meryl Streep as her drug-addled daughter.

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