SCREENWRITER DIABLO CODY and director Jason Reitman are clearly trying to do something subversive with Young Adult. Audiences have been conditioned to expect a character as unlikeable as Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) to redeem herself over the course of a movie—she drinks too much, so she'll confront her drinking problem; her ego is planet sized, so she'll learn humility; she treats people terribly, so she'll learn how to be kind. Reitman and Cody systematically thwart these expectations, presenting an unlikeable character who flat-out refuses to change. And while that, in itself, is sort of interesting, Young Adult doesn't do much of anything else.
Mavis Gary is a recent divorcée who becomes fixated on her high school sweetheart and returns to her hometown determined to win him back. The only catch? Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is happily married and a new father. But the former prom queen isn't going to let a little thing like a newborn get in her way; her attempts to seduce the clueless Buddy are pure cringe-cinema.
Mavis is hot, but she's pathetic, too; binging on The Kardashians and cramming her tiny dog into her giant purse like she's just another B-list celebrity. (The framing device here—that Mavis is a YA author who starts mining her own life for ideas—is implausible. Writing takes discipline, and there's not the faintest suggestion Mavis possesses any.)
She also forms an "unlikely bond" (sigh) with Patton Oswalt, the town nerd, who—perhaps because "nerd" alone isn't the instant boner killer it used to be—still walks with a cane after being badly beaten in high school. Oswalt provides a likeable foil to Mavis' grandiosity, as she tools around the strip malls of her Minneapolis suburb like returning royalty. (Let's all take a moment to remember that shots of chain restaurants that condescendingly evoke the strip-malled guts of America also double as product placement. Verrrry subversive.)
In a culture that places a high value on youth and beauty, there are plenty of stories to be told about women reconciling themselves to the loss of both. But Young Adult is more interested in wallowing in the spectacle of Mavis' meltdown than in considering why it's happening. Mavis is as badly behaved as any Kardashian, and while she might represent the shallowest, most self-obsessed aspects of our national consciousness—self-regard bereft of self-analysis—we're not exactly wanting for media images of shallow people behaving badly. (Turn on your television.) Reitman and Cody have made a film that's difficult to classify: It's either a comedy with no laughs, a drama with no character movement, or a social critique with no insight. Take your pick.