Dec. 14 2011 12:00 AM

Charlize Theron is great at being grating in ‘Adult’


Chances are you know someone like Mavis Gary, the woman Charlize Theron portrays in director Jason Reitman’s scalding comedy “Young Adult.” She’s been out of high school for 20 years, yet she still hungers for the days when she was idolized by her peers, worshiped by her friends and — more to the point — lusted after by guys like Buddy, her former flame (Patrick Wilson).

But this former teen queen is no longer much of a role model. Mavis has turned into a hard-drinking, acid-tongued basket case who ghost-writes “Sweet Valley High”-style teen novels, eavesdrops on actual teenagers to get juicy material, dodges calls from her impatient editors, keeps up with the Kardashians round the clock and pretends to be happy in her messy Minneapolis high-rise apartment.

So how does a thirtysomething underachiever regain her confidence? Naturally, she makes a trip back to her old stomping grounds, hoping to once again walk all over the people who once envied her and, hopefully, to pick up Buddy along the way.

“Young Adult” is the second collaboration between Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, following their Oscar-winning box office hit “Juno,” and it’s a suitably sassy follow-up.

Cody doesn’t create heroines that are easy to love, and Theron doesn’t exactly make the job any easier. Mavis is surly, condescending and completely delusional as she bulldozes her way through her hometown of Mercury, Minn., dragging along her former classmate Matt, wonderfully played by Patton Oswalt.

“You can’t keep dwelling on the past,” Mavis tells Matt — but that’s precisely what she’s doing on a daily basis.

You may not like Mavis, but you’ll be delighted by Theron’s sensational performance, which combines the slinky moves of Sharon Stone, the edgy elegance of Michelle Pfeiffer and the flawless comic timing of Carole Lombard.

Although Mavis may still be capable of brushing on enough makeup to hide her battle wounds and slipping into fashions that show off her still-shapely figure, she’s far less capable when it comes to getting a grip on reality. Even though Buddy is  married with a baby, Mavis sees that as little more than a speed bump on her highway to happiness. In her muddled mind, he’s still Mr. Right and, even though the more sensible Matt tries to make her face reality, Mavis plans a full-scale seduction of Buddy, using everything from cheap beer to the old mix tape he made for her two decades ago.

The cruel joke of the movie is that Buddy is barely worth the trouble. He seems nice enough, but there’s nothing dazzling or irresistible about him: Wilson effectively  turns down his natural charisma to play Buddy as a blandly benevolent suburbanite, no more or less appealing than anyone you’d find at the neighborhood block party.

As Mavis writes in one of her terrible books, “Sometimes, in order to heal, a few people have to get hurt.” Of course, she’s hoping the victim will be Buddy’s warm-hearted but plain-Jane wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). 

Like “Juno,” this caustic character study finds its laughs in some unlikely places. When was the last time you saw a movie that made jokes about hate crimes? Yes, Cody goes there.

If you’re willing to go along, “Young Adult” pays off with plenty of bitter humor and snappy one-liners. And the next time you see your own Mavis Gary hanging around the high school reunion, reliving her glory days — well, you’ll still want to run for cover.

‘Young Adult’

Opens Friday at Celebration Cinema Lansing and NCG Eastwood Theatres.