If you can believe Charlize Theron as a loveless layabout then you'll probably buy into "Young Adult," the new movie from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the team that brought us "Juno." Actually, Theron does a fairly convincing job. It's the movie surrounding her that isn't quite so convincing.
She plays heavy drinker Mavis Gary, divorced and pushing 40, who lives in a messy Minneapolis apartment and ghostwrites a popular teen novel series. When she discovers her old high school flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), have a new baby, she uses that information as an excuse to return after many years to her Minnesota hometown and lure him back.
She doesn't disguise her disgust at the town's hicksville trappings even though she is regarded as a celebrity among her many high school classmates who chose to remain there. One of those classmates, though, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), is on to her. As she makes her move on the clueless (or just preternaturally polite) Buddy, Matt repeatedly calls her out. Only he, it seems, understands not only what she is up to but also how self-defeatingly hopeless it all is.
The dumpy Matt has his own back story: While in high school he was brutally attacked by bullies for supposedly being gay – he's not – and he still suffers wounds from the experience. It's inevitable that Mavis and Matt should form a kind of oddball alliance, if only because Mavis can't get any traction with anyone else in town and because Matt, despite his bred-in-the-bone cynicism, still sees Mavis as the prom queen.
Oswalt and Theron work so well together that they almost make this subplot – which has the emotional heft of the main plot – come alive. But there's something amiss at the heart of this movie: Mavis, for all her knockabout manias, is intended to be a sympathetic soul, and the film itself is essentially framed as a comedy. But the filmmakers may be just as clueless as Buddy when it comes to Mavis, who resembles nothing so much as a snooty stalker. In the end they resist, just barely, the temptation to redeem her, but by that time we may have joined with the fed-up small-towners in wishing her a rapid fare-thee-well. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)