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Movie Review: Charlize Theron Gives YOUNG ADULT Its Bracing, Vicious Edge

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What makes Charlize Theron so interesting is how radically she reinvents herself every few years.  In the late ‘90s, she rose to prominence through a series of ingénue psychopath parts: James Spader’s depraved love interest in 2 Days in the Valley, or the (SPOILER ALERT) secret criminal mastermind in Reindeer Games.  That got old fast, so she started migrating to leading lady roles, even when films like The Cider House Rules, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The Italian Job were far too content using her as just a pretty face for the hero to kiss.

By 2003, you could sense Theron bucking against her looks, and downplaying her beauty brought about another phase: stealth character actress.  Theron found herself pinch-hitting brilliantly in unexpected disciplines, be it comedy (her five-episode arc on “Arrested Development”), drama (North Country, In the Valley of Elah), or great tragedy (serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster).  Only one thing belied her movie-star core: even de-glammed to extremes, Theron never had trouble capturing an audience’s gaze.

After seeing Young Adult for a second time, I’m convinced it marks the next step in Theron’s evolution, the moment she emerges in full position of her gifts.  Of course, work of this caliber often goes unnoticed come awards season, and Young Adult was no exception; Theron’s name was conspicuously absent among the Oscar nominations.  But then again, she was operating on a different plain from the other Best Actress nominees.  Mavis isn’t a historical figure or one of the downtrodden, and her monstrousness lacks the art-directed brutality that Rooney Mara brought to her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hellion.  No, Mavis Gary—the film’s sociopathic heroine—is just a (semi) successful writer who becomes convinced that happily married ex-boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) wants her back.  No blood is shed, no punches are thrown, yet your skin still crawls whenever she’s on-screen.

And that’s Theron.  Using Diablo Cody’s terse, incisive script as a starting point, Theron layers Mavis full of delusions and resentments at the cellular level.  Despite Cody’s wordsmith reputation, Young Adult contains many scenes where Mavis says nothing—we’ll just watch her watching reality television, or prepping her wig for a night out with the ex, or drinking (too early in the day) to avoid writing—but Theron ensures we never doubt that she contains multitudes.  She is beautiful and selfish, sad and magnetic, terrifying and foolish, and—above all else—human.

The pleasure comes from watching this disaster enter what would otherwise be a traditional romantic comedy.  Cody and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) structure the film exactly like the Julia Roberts classic My Best Friend’s Wedding, so we don’t immediately recoil when Mavis sets off after Buddy because hey: we liked it when Julia did the same thing.  We figure she’ll learn a life lesson, wish Buddy and his family well, and maybe—just maybe—find love with her true soul mate, Patton Oswalt’s cynical and deformed bookkeeper.  Slap an upbeat pop song over the end credits, and let the fun begin, right?

Except none of that happens because Theron, Cody, and Reitman keep Mavis honest.  They don’t see a quirky free spirit; they see depression and damage.  The original tagline for the poster was, “The girl you hated in high school is now thirty-seven,” and that line encapsulates her stunted development, they way she can’t see past “I want.”  Throughout the film, characters will set up an easy out for Mavis, and she’ll just demolish their efforts.  It becomes clear early on that Buddy has no interest in Mavis, making her continued search for a romantic opening look more and more like a violation.  Buddy’s wife (Elizabeth Reaser) turns out to be a cool, understanding young woman, which only makes Mavis hate her more.

The most heartbreaking subversion involves Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf.  Without going into spoilers, Reitman and Cody let us see the genuine connection between these two misfits (their scenes of drunken verbal sparring have the bite of great screwball comedy), but just as we expect formula to kick and unite Mavis and Matt, an unexpected source does the worst thing in the world, and our hope for a happy ending plummets.  This moment works on two levels: 1) as meta-commentary on the rom-com format and 2) as tragedy, for what could have been between the heroes.

I was surprised at how affecting I found Young Adult; from the first frame, the picture establishes a tone of brutal logic and follows it to the inevitable conclusion.  There’s real integrity there, bleak as it may be.  Most studio comedies can’t call claim to that word, but then again, most studio comedies don’t have Charlize Theron.

Young Adult‘s Blu-ray maintains an interesting palette; as part of the way the movie upsets expectations, DP Eric Steelberg gives the look a sharp, gunmetal coldness.  It looks more like a crime film than a light comedy, and the Blu-ray faithfully replicates that look, alongside a capable 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Features are nicely substantive.  We get a commentary from Reitman, Steelberg, and first assistant director/associate producer Jason A. Blumenfeld; a Misery Loves Company behind-the-scenes featurette; the Awful Truth: Deconstructing a Scene feature that outlines the transition from page to screen; seven minutes of deleted scenes; and a wonderful forty-five-minute Q&A between Reitman and critic Janet Maslin.  There’s no fluff on the package, which also includes DVD and UV digital copies.

The ice-pick-sharp Young Adult has Charlize Theron’s best performance.  For anyone skeptical of Diablo Cody’s talent (and after Juno and Jennifer’s Body, I can’t blame you), this one may make you reconsider her.

The Blu-ray streets on March 13th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.