By Peter Tonguette | Press Play January 17, 2012 at 8:52AM
It would be easy to mistake Charlize Theron’s words and deeds in Young Adult for plain nastiness. She finds everything wanting, lacking, somehow deficient, especially when it comes to the people who live in motley Mercury, Minnesota, her hometown. She left there long ago and condemns those who didn’t follow her shining example. When someone calls the baby of a friend “darling-looking,” she says, quietly but firmly, “Have you seen it? Up close?” She makes fun of the friend’s wife’s amateur rock band. She is brazen about all of this, not batting an eye as she lies to a hotel desk clerk about having a small dog with her (even as we hear the yapping thing in her bag).
That Theron plays a writer (her claim to fame—or not—is a series of books for young adults) is the key to understanding what is behind these attacks. She isn’t just being disdainful. She is taking notes. Did screenwriter Diablo Cody choose to call the character “Mavis Gary” because the name sounds so similar to that of Mavis Gallant, the great New Yorker short story writer? It doesn’t seem entirely out of the question. Forget the worthlessness of Mavis Gary’s genre. She cares about writing—any kind of writing. After all, it was her ticket out of Mercury. Her work habits are no better or worse than most of us—not taking calls from her editor when she is on a deadline, playing it fast and loose with low printer ink—but she demonstrates her seriousness when she does what all writers are supposed to do: watch, listen and write. During a visit to Staples, she eavesdrops on the conversation of two lovesick adolescent clerks. Their exchange ends up as dialogue in her next book.
It is not in this spirit that Mavis returns to Mercury—on a whim, she decides she wants to renew a romance with an old, now-married boyfriend (Patrick Wilson)—but the trip actually provides her with more material. Mavis uses what she is feeling and thinking for her work. She may not realize it at first, but her meanness is a way for her to create a distance between herself and her subject. If Mavis errs, it is only in thinking at first that she can inhabit Mercury innocently, as though she could ever woo her former beau away from his wife and baby, as though he would ever find her values and preferences as worthwhile as his own. Mavis is delusional in that she fails for a long time to grasp that she is, by virtue of her chosen profession, an outsider. She will always be the only one in Mercury who shows up at a “baby naming” ceremony in a silk blouse among a sea of sweatshirts, looking put-together as only Charlize Theron can. As Clark Kent said at his high school reunion in Superman III: “The prettiest girl in school… is still the prettiest girl in school.”
Yet a merely pretty actress would not have cut it as Mavis. The part required the striking, almost ungainly beauty of Charlize Theron, whose height makes everyone around her seem tiny. Even when Mavis is slumming, as she often is, she retains a kind of elegance. Every time she turns the TV on, it is a Kardashian we hear talking, but the director, Jason Reitman, is too smart to go for a cheap laugh. Who among us hasn’t found mindlessness of this sort fortifying at one time or another? There is a scene late in the movie where Mavis orders a horrifying tray of food from Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, and proceeds to chow down. The truth is that sometimes we could do with a little junk, and as Diablo Cody has written her, Mavis is always ingesting junky things: the Kardashians, fast food, liquor, beer, a jug of coke for her hangover the morning after. It is Cody’s ingenious metaphor for Mavis’s voracious appetite for the ugliness of life.
The direction of Jason Reitman is relaxed, unobtrusive, recalling Woody Allen at his most unassuming. The casual handheld camera of Manhattan Murder Mystery has resurfaced here, catching quirks of behavior without seeming to try very hard—in a way, not unlike Mavis, who view things so critically but also so softly.
Is it Mavis’s fault that what she sees around her is so unappealing? When she momentarily reconsiders her scornful feelings for Mercury, she is assured that its residents really are, for the most part, “fat and dumb.” This seems to be so, and it is all that Mavis needs. Her instincts about the place were right. Francine du Plessix Gray once said that “in any decent writing one must observe with cruelty, describe with cruelty, yet end up with some sense of mercy.” It is the quality of mercy that Mavis lacks, but we ought not to discount the importance of the quality of cruelty. Is there such a difference between cruelty and wit?
If Mavis is guilty of anything, it is of wasting her wit on silly novels for adolescent girls. The hopeful conclusion of Young Adult doesn’t suggest that Mavis is suddenly filled with goodwill toward men. Instead, it left me with the conviction that our unkind star has gained a renewed sense of ambition. I wonder: How many great writers throughout history hated their hometowns as much as Mavis Gary does?
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.