It is a hazardous undertaking to look in the mirror during a hangover. Yet this is a motif repeated throughout Young Adult: Somewhere between swigging from a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke and cracking a tin of dog food for her Pomeranian, Charlize Theron will lock contemptuous gazes with the raccoon lids caked with last night's eye shadow. But she doesn't seem to recognize the woman in the glass. Recognition would ruin everything.
The reunion of Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody with director Jason Reitman, Young Adult is a movie with many antecedents—it recalls John Cusack's grasp-at-the-past pictures Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, as well as the bottoms-up despondency of Sideways—but it most reminded me of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, "The Outsider," in which the isolated narrator is appalled by his own reflection. "I cannot even hint what it was like," he says, "for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable." Theron won an Oscar mauling her beautiful features in Monster, but what she faces here is a character rotting from the inside. Killing time between drinks, she yanks strands of hair from her scalp, as if trying to hasten the decay.
It's a comedy, by the way. It also feels like an exorcism for Cody. She ranks as one of cinema's most distinctive writers, but with Young Adult she is to some degree repudiating her own Oscar-winning work in Juno. In Theron's Mavis Gary, Cody has created a heroine who ghostwrites sub-Sweet Valley High novels by overhearing shopping-mall tween chatter and studding it with bad puns. (The finger-curling Juno catchphrase "honest to blog" springs to mind; sorry to bring it back to yours.) Cody has also returned to her favorite motif—the prom queen as succubus—but unlike in Jennifer's Body, where she made the concept exhaustingly literal, she now constructs a villain whose maniacal drive is fueled by pathetic yearnings.
As if modeling her life on those Cusack characters, Mavis listens repeatedly to the same Teenage Fanclub song on a cassette tape—the movie's very clever opening credits play "The Concept" three damn times—and uses it as a pep talk to return to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., and reclaim her high-school quarterback boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). His marriage and baby are but minor obstacles, and all other people are attendants in the royal court of her imagination. Mavis is a parody of queen-bee awfulness, and on some basic levels she doesn't make sense: How does this imperious snob reconcile her pride at getting out of Mercury with her refusal to surrender her glory days? But Cody and Reitman eventually establish a rationale for this incoherence. Mavis is an addict.
Not to burden you with personal confession, but many details in Young Adult resonated from a booze-soaked period in my own life, months when I clung to the "functioning" half of the phrase "functioning alcoholic" like a deflated life preserver. The movie knows that the big question for a nightly drunk isn't how to hide your abuse (everybody is too busy to notice, or already knows and doesn't care about you enough to mention it) or how to find a bottle (you worked out systems long ago) but getting somebody to drink with you, company to make you feel normal. Mavis finds Matt (Patton Oswalt, in the role of his life), a professionally miserable former classmate literally crippled by bullying, who has taken to distilling "Mos Eisley Special Reserve" in his garage. "Do you want to get loaded…or something?" she asks him, and that little addendum is a priceless stab at maintaining a shred of dignity.
She loses even that, in a sidewalk rant that escalates from uncomfortable verbal blitzkrieg into vulnerability so piercing that she can't bear to keep the walls down. Young Adult isn't quite the nasty chortle it first appears to be, and it isn't some Very Special Episode about the perils of substances: After some easy laughs in its first half, it becomes a realist horror about the universal need to maintain a few illusions about yourself. I spent most of the movie feeling uncomfortable and a bit superior, and then I walked back to my car and broke down crying. Young Adult has problems, and I don't know if it's a great movie. I don't think I can look at it again.
82 SEE IT: Young Adult is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Clackamas and Movies on TV.