Neither film offers deep lessons or universal truths, and if I publish a review of David Fincher's new Dragon Tattoo before the studio says it's OK, I won't be allowed to attend screenings of anything but old View-Master reels for five years. But one thing I know for sure: Lisbeth Salander ain't got nothing on Mavis Gary.
Mavis is the alcoholic sociopath Charlize Theron plays in Young Adult. Unlike steely, inked-up Lisbeth, she's no super hacker. Her computer expertise is limited to knowing how much saliva must be dribbled onto an empty toner cartridge for a printer to spit out one last image. But Mavis' appetite for destruction is as visceral and terrifying as anything in Stieg Larsson's carnival of Scandinavian depravity.
We meet Mavis as she wakes from what looks like her thousandth consecutive night of blackout-drunk disappointment. She suckles a 2-liter Diet Coke bottle held in both hands, her body hunched against the pale, white Minneapolis morning that has invaded her pale, white Minneapolis singles-tower apartment. Avoiding a deadline — she's a writer about to close out a once-popular series of young-adult novels — she opens an e-mail from her high school boyfriend. He has a new daughter, a wife, a life. Which means, Mavis decides, that he must be miserable. So she sets off to rescue him, returning to pitiable small-town Minnesota, a beige skidmark of drive-thrus and retail chains.
By the reed-thin standards of multiplex comedy, that's a solid-gold setup. For the presumably more ambitious Diablo Cody, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, and Jason Reitman, director of both movies (and the equally schematic but far superior Up in the Air), it's also the outer boundary of storytelling. Not a lot happens in Young Adult, unless the bottoming out of its protagonist counts. Unfortunately, that's the point.
With The Hangover now a franchise and the why-should-men-have-all-the-fun conversation well under way in 2011's Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, Mavis is not the shock she might have been even a couple of years ago. Neither is Cody's shallow vision of irredeemable narcissism, embodied by Theron with mesmerizing lust and fine screwball zest. It's impossible to look away from Mavis — impossible for everyone except her ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade. Patrick Wilson, so eager to forsake marital vows in Little Children, plays Buddy with as much awareness as a bowl of instant oatmeal, without quite as much appeal. Cody can't mean to make Mavis this blind, can she?
Maybe. Mavis' determination to wrest her old prom king from his new baby and rockin' wife (really — Buddy's wife plays drums in a band of mommies) should play as a series of mortifying jolts. And there are a few good, sickening laughs (most of them before the halfway mark). But the satisfaction that Cody takes in refusing to let Mavis feel anything finally saps the movie of its already limited vicarious thrills. Mavis stops having fun long before Theron does. She's too damaged to be tempting, and he's too stupid for her to keep.
When Mavis' meltdown arrives, at a crowded christening party, she claims to have wanted the same things she has set out to destroy. (The through line in Cody's screenplays so far is a queasy ambivalence toward motherhood, at all its stages, that is satisfying neither as comedy nor drama.) For a moment, she's George Bailey in reverse, a toxic force made to squirm at the sight of good and genteel Bedford Falls. In this version of It's a Wonderful Life, everyone is better off without the hometown star.
Her Clarence is a broken but clear-eyed former classmate named Matt Freehauf, played by the comic Patton Oswalt. Cody has never let a story's momentum stand in the way of a motivation-explicating monologue, and so it is here, too. In the one or two such scenes required of him, Oswalt is Theron's equal. They understand their characters — understand cruelty — better than Cody does. That makes Young Adult watchable, sometimes even fascinating, but also frustrating — too damaged to be tempting, too stupid to keep.