Charlize in “Young Adult”

Mavis Gary is an angry drunk who’s mean to her dog. We don’t often see a character like that at the center of a major movie, and this is what makes “Young Adult” so great: It’s a character study about someone we haven’t met before. Originality, especially these days, is something to seek out and cherish.

As is Charlize Theron, who plays Mavis. I wasn’t stalking Charlize when I heard she was hanging out at Joe’s Carraro’s in Albuquerque during the filming of “In the Valley of Elah.” Sure I started going there a lot more often, but it’s got ping pong.

Had we met I would have merely asked her over beers about this scene in “Monster,” the bus stop scene, where all the guilt of serial killing seems to finally take her over.

I don’t know how a person can do that. Acting is amazing. Is it a matter of practicing alone in the mirror somewhere 1,000 times? Does she actually try to become this insane person in her head? Heath Ledger famously hid away in a motel room for more than a month to channel Joker, so did she do something similar? Or maybe she’s thinking of some horrible event from her past that brings this hysterical reaction on naturally.

Charlize is the best. She just is. She won a much-deserved Oscar for playing the monster in “Monster.” She may pick up No. 2 for her dynamic performance as a drunken, catty bitch in “Young Adult,” the darkly entertaining new movie from director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “Up in the Air”) and screenwriter Diablo Cody (won an Oscar for the “Juno” script, also wrote “Jennifer’s Body”).

Charlize on the left. Mavis on the right. Finally, she gets to act in a good movie that doesn't ask her to ugly it up.

When we first meet Mavis, she’s passed out on her bed one sunny morning, fully clothed, flat-screen bedroom TV tuned to a reality show. The first words we hear in the flick come from the show: “Kendra, you are the most beautiful woman.”

What becomes apparent over the zany hour-and-a-half that follows is that Mavis personifies the modern reality-TV culture of oblivious narcissism. She’s an author of young-adult fiction, and throughout “Young Adult” she takes breaks from destroying lives to write the story of popular high-school cheerleader Kendal Strickland. We get the book in spurts of Charlize voice over, like when Kendal wonders “Why was Ryan spending so much time with this dumpy new girl?”

Mavis gets an email from her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade, with a photograph attached of Buddy’s new baby. Between writing and drinking and sleeping with men she doesn’t like, Mavis finds herself logging on to look at the baby’s picture. She’s haunted by it, for some (genuine) reason (revealed at the end of the film).

She sets off from Minneapolis in her Mini Cooper toward home in tiny Mercury, Minn., where she vows to find Buddy and split him up from his saccharin, boring family. It is a mission destined to fail horribly.

Before she reconnects with Buddy in Mercury, Mavis bumps into her old classmate Matt Freehauf at a dive bar, and they get wasted together. Matt is played (perfectly) by the comedian Patton Oswalt. Mavis remembers him as “that hate-crime guy.” In high school he was beaten nearly to death for being gay, even though he isn’t gay. The attack left him permanently injured all over.

Matt and Mavis’s relationship is vital to “Young Adult,” and Oswalt and Theron have a blast playing off one another. Matt doesn’t seem to mind when Mavis is brutally mean to him – he likes being around her in spite of her fire breathing. This could be because she’s dead sexy, or it could be because they are both, for separate reasons, stuck in their adolescent mindsets despite closing in on 40. (He lives with his sister and paints old action figures in his ample spare time.)

What makes Mavis tick in this delicious Cody screenplay? The character is so interesting that we’re constantly on the lookout for clues to her psyche. Two hints come when she tells her parents “I think I might be an alcoholic” (hint one) and they prove themselves lousy guardians by not saying anything in response (hint two).

Check out the first scene in the trailer, when she’s checking into a hotel and has a brief discussion with the clerk about whether or not there’s a dog in her bag:

This is supposed to be funny, and it kind of is. But it also says something about her, that even when caught so completely red-handed she’s unwilling to give back an inch. She stays angrily defiant, despite the dog whimpering only a few feet from her head.

Beyond the script and the acting, the movie’s creepily modern setting will also suck you in. You don’t notice how many other movies take place in another dimension until you see one that doesn’t. “Young Adult” is ensconced in drab normalcy. One scene takes place in one of those Taco Bell-Pizza Hut-Kentucky Fried Chicken combo joints. In another, we watch Mavis walk from her car across the mall parking lot into a giant Macy’s.

The social interactions all ring true too. This movie captures brilliantly the strange, awkward feel of going home and bumping into old high-school acquaintances. Patrick Wilson plays Buddy and does a deft job as a happily married man with a crazy ex desperately throwing herself at him. He keeps smiling and acting friendly, but it can only go so far.

By the end of “Young Adult” we understand Mavis much better. Key moments from her sad past have been dredged. When she meets Buddy’s family, his wife shows Mavis a chart for their baby, with rows of cartoon faces making different expressions. It’s meant to help the baby learn emotions: happy, sad, scared….

“What about neutral?” Mavis says. “What if you don’t feel anything?”

Then something’s missing. That may make you sad and alone, but it doesn’t make you boring. Charlize is a total artist, and “Young Adult” is a great movie.

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