Diablo Cody knows she's screwed up, and isn't afraid to admit it. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Juno" specializes in whip-smart, neurotic heroines driven by self-destructive impulses. Now "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron as an emotionally wounded writer of trashy YA fiction, would seem to have a whiff of confession to it.
Like Cody, Mavis Gary (Theron) proudly wears the crown of a pop-culture princess. Pretty and pretty much a mess, Mavis guzzles two liters of Diet Coke for her morning pick-me-up (or, perhaps, more accurately, her diet), and her procrastination routines include "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," "Kendra" and the odd bout of Wii Fit. Even as her gig ghostwriting "Waverly Prep" novels nears its ignominious end, a blast from Mavis' past sticks in her craw: a birth notice from ex-boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).
Perhaps as much to avoid writing as to make a romantic correction, Mavis compulsively jumps in her Mini and drives from Minneapolis to small-town Mercury, Minn. As matters stand, her only functional relationship is with her Pomeranian (named Dolce), but the overconfident plan is to steal back Buddy, who must be miserable with an ordinary girl and the shackles of parenthood. Yep, she's dead set on being a homewrecker. It only becomes clearer with time that Mavis is a total disaster, which is, of course, part of the film's irreverent appeal.
In Mercury, Mavis reconnects with her prom-queen past even as she makes an unlikely friend of the biggest loser from school: Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Mavis obviously sees herself in Matt, with his acid wit, pop-culture addiction and weight of failure. She isn't quite sure what to do with this reorienting knowledge, but her need to unload flash-bonds her to Matt, a guy who lives with his sister and seems to do nothing put pay tribute to science fiction and anime by repainting action figures and making "Mos Eisley Special Reserve" bourbon in his garage.
Simultaneously off-kilter and pat, this anti-romantic comedy has plenty to admire even though its attempt to cohere into a satisfyingly rounded narrative proves clumsily abrupt (perhaps that's the price to pay for the film's 94-minute concision, or just a reflection of its anti-hero). Director Jason Reitman (who also helmed "Juno") makes a good match for this shaggy-dog story, though he never tops his road-trip title sequence, which fetishizes a Day-Glo Memorex tape as Mavis rewinds it over and over again to sing along to Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept."
What ultimately makes "Young Adult" worth the trip is Theron's uncompromising performance, which dares to make Mavis unlikeable and, in the process, earns our pity and, more disturbingly, our identification.
In a land of corporate chain stores (and, as Mavis dubs them, "KenTacoHut"s), alone and on a soon-to-be-undeniable decline made steeper by encroaching middle age, Mavis can neither bear the thought of becoming part of the American landscape nor can she abide being an exile. Like so many of us, she'd rather regress into ignorant bliss than grow up and face facts.