There are unlikable protagonists, and then there’s Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), the anti-hero of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s reunion outing, Young Adult. Most movie assholes tend to be either joyful in their assholedom (W.C. Fields) or crying on the inside (Ben Stiller in Greenberg). Mavis is neither. A ghost writer of tween novels with a drinking problem (both with booze and Diet Coke 2-liters), she handles a mid-life crisis with characteristic tact: by schlepping from the big city to the small town from which she escaped, where she’ll try to win back her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). Of course, this tactic requires stealing this seemingly oblivious, patchy-bearded schlub from his wife and their newborn. If that weren’t enough, she’s played by Theron, in a performance that heroically avoids compassion, joy, smiling—anything that would make us even slightly wish for her betterment. Pathetic without deserving pathos, she lights up only after six bourbons or while flirting with a married father. Not since Tom Hardy in Warrior has a lead performance been so epically uninterested in being liked.
Give Cody credit for two things: utterly avoiding her trademark demonic catchphrases—Mavis’ one redeeming facet is she’s too sour to curse the world with a phrase like “honest to blog”—and stopping short of the barndoor broad Midwestern characterizations of, say, Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt . The characters Mavis encounters aren’t overtly cartoonish. There’s even a rich character in Mavis’ unlikely ally Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate and nerd who won’t let a go-nowhere life and debilitating high school-era injuries keep him from acting like Patton Oswalt. In a beautifully calibrated performance that one-ups his Big Fan turn, the comedian portrays a sadsack who can still build up the confidence and wit to cheerfully mock Mavis’ demonic intentions, all the while finding enough similarities with her to remain her friend, doormat and occasional accomplice. Only when it’s time to wrap things up does this experiment go haywire. In a fit of screenwriterly panic, Mavis suddenly gets an 11th-hour tragic revelation, a failed attempt to humanize a uniquely miserable protagonist. What follows is a total muddle that, one that—just like Reitman’s Up in the Air—mistakes not knowing how to wrap things up for ambiguity.