In Young Adult, director Jason Reitman (Up In The Air) and writer Diablo Cody (Juno) present us with barely enough information to go on, as if knowing someone less will make us like them more. In this case, it just might be accurate.
Charlize Theron is an author who finds herself at the end of a long journey, ghost-writing the final book in a seemingly-endless Sweet Valley High-esque YA series for kids. Indeed, we are treated to her writerly voice-over throughout the film, which mirrors the events of the story she is writing. (A bit of forgivable meta-narrative since aren't we all in one way or another the authors of our own existence?) In any case, she's divorced, living alone in messy squalor, and writing has not filled her with any real kind of happiness. When a birth announcement lands in her inbox, she hastily makes a trip back to her small Midwestern hometown to lord her existence over everyone to rekindle a romance with her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), all the while attempting to finish the final book in her series. Along the way she drinks too much and hangs out with some weird people from high school (Patton Oswalt) whom she's really not better than, just better-looking than.
Actually, she lives the way a lot of writers I know live, constantly checking various websites, online shopping, moping around in a foggy stupor, listlessly watching reality TV, drinking far too much, and lying to editors as you hopelessly attempt to meet deadlines you barely care about. So Diablo Cody got all that right.
Theron is remarkable, painful to watch in her delusion, smug and self-assured even as she does her best to drink herself stupid night after night while flirting to the point of indecency with a married man and hanging out with Oswalt's character simply because he is there. The acting across the board is delightful, with even the normally handsome and affable Patrick Wilson appearing marginally stupid and boring as the devoted husband. Patton Oswalt deserves attention for his likeable portrayal of ... for lack of a better term, a local disabled fellow, and Elizabeth Reaser, best known for existing in the Twilight franchise, really turns on the charm and empathy as Wilson's patient wife.
While a lot of the hilarity comes from awkward situations and Theron's mesmerizing ability to appear as if she truly does not give a crap, one of the moments I liked best in the film comes as Theron drunkenly pilots a car through a parking lot, speaking for an entire generation of childless women when she screams out the window: "Babies are boring!" as she cackles away into the night. I was surprised that didn't get a bigger laugh.
The music is fantastic and one song in particular, The Concept by Teenage Fanclub, will drill itself into your head so firmly you'll still be singing lines of it in three weeks. The rest of the mechanics of the film are well-done, the production design and cinematography perfectly examining the unimportant details of everyday life, and Theron herself is less glamorous than usual, though by no means transported to her Monster days. She really does look like a naturally beautiful woman who doesn't have to try much harder than running a brush through her hair and slapping on some mascara.
Cody avoids cutesy language or too much silliness for the most part, but anyone with a stroke of self-awareness will continually ask themselves why any of the events are taking place. Why has Theron decided that her high school boyfriend, by all relentless accounts happily married and content with his small-town existence, is the only thing that will make her happy in any way? The great writer Alice Munro (whose work was featured in one of the opening scenes of The Skin I Live In as a book being delivered to a patient) once wrote: “They were all in their thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” And perhaps that's the best summation of the movie, that for a lot of people it can be traumatizing to realize that this is as good as it gets, that you're not going to have a better job, or ever be a better writer, or ever have the life you thought you might have. This is it.
Though it is dully self-congratulatory, I couldn't help but like Young Adult. I wanted to like it a whole heck of a lot more, but like the most popular kid in school, there almost isn't room for anyone else to like you when you like yourself the very most.