I like everything about this plot idea. Beautiful, horrible former high school queen, Mavis (Charlize Theron) is now in her late 30s, living in Minneapolis and ghost writing for a young adult series of novels about high school drama. When she hears her old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have had a baby she decides that he’s The One Who Got Away. She goes back to her small, provincial Minnesota home town to help him escape from what she’s sure is a life in hell. All the while she’s trying to finish writing the last novel for the increasingly unpopular series, which the publishers are about to shelve. Written and directed by the same pair, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, who produced the snappy Juno (2007) and starring the excellent Theron, the only question is: why doesn’t it quite work?

The problem isn’t Theron, that’s for sure. I’ve only seen her be funny once before (in Arrested Development) and she’s good at it. It’s a tricky part, because she’s such a resolute anti-heroine. She’s just incredibly pretty — and let me say that watching her for 90 minutes almost makes you want to drool in spite of yourself — yet her character is a dark, alcoholic, depressive bitch on wheels. As mean as Mavis is, Theron has to make you feel for her, even against all your better judgment. Within the first 20 minutes I realized something about that horrible girl in my high school: being that pretty can make you paranoid such that you imagine envy and death rays coming out of every other woman’s eyes. (Which made her all the meaner.)

In short: this film is made for all of us who weren’t Mavises in high school, and it’s made for one purpose: so we can delight in her misery. Problem: that’s not really a very good plot.

Here’s my theory: the problem with this story is that ultimately we learn more about the screenwriter than we do about the main character. This woman is more eager to punish Mavis than she is to write a tale that works, and she starts by giving her character zero redeeming qualities. Mavis can clean herself up really nice for Big Appearances, but most of the time she’s dragging around in sweats and with her mascara running — if not passed out, face down, on a convenience piece of furniture. Diablo Cody passes up no opportunity to pile on the list of ugly habits and vicious character traits. After a while you start to think that in writing a story about a woman who never become a real adult, Cody has revealed that she just can’t forgive that bitch.

So at some point around the 2/3 mark, you start to feel the story working against itself. You start to feel that no prom queen, however psycho, would have wound up so utterly pathetic as Mavis. And you grow weary of the litany of humiliations she must endure. Especially because it all contrasts so strikingly with the fact that the camera just loves Theron. Sometimes I wondered whether Reitman and Cody were likewise entranced by her; there’s something schizophrenic about watching Theron slit her eyes like the meanest of all mean girls, yet her mouth is so perfectly shaped that you can’t quite concentrate fully on her meanness.

I also like the idea that she would form a weird friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a guy who was so bullied by Mavis and others in high school that he wound up being brutally beaten and left for dead. He still walks with a crutch and tells her freely that his penis was disfigured at the time, too. Turns out, he’s the one person willing to tell Mavis that she’s delusional and self-destructive — not that it helps, or changes anything. Not that the film really convinces you that Mavis would be friends with Matt.

So for all its good ideas, the film winds up stuck in a bunch of old-chestnut tropes that it can’t work its way through:

  • you can’t go home again
  • small town virtues vs. big city emptiness
  • will the shlubby loser wind up being Mr. Right?
  • catfight between women
  • will damaged anti-heroine heal herself?

Alas. Cody seems to have decided that her ending would avoid the gravitational pull of any of these narratives, and instead offer us something that avoids the sense of an ending at all. It feels, a bit, like she skipped out on us.

I’m looking forward to seeing Theron do more off-kilter parts. But I’m having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for Reitman and Cody. Juno was a spunky little movie — a much better than average, B+/A- kind of flick with an appealing heroine who had lines that were a little bit too good for a high school kid. But they needed more work on the script for Young Adult, a clearer vision for the movie, and less awe of their terrific lead actor. It’s too bad, because they started with a great plot concept.