Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt
Review: 3 stars (of five)
The writer and the director who brought you Juno team up again, with another story of unlikely losers, this time a dozen-plus years past the slack miasma of high school. Instead, it focuses on a pathetic adult failure who craves the shallow victories and insignificant love enshrined in her high school memories.
Charlize Theron ghost-writes a dying series of vapid young adult novels, lives alone in a bland Minneapolis apartment with an expensive view, and occasionally wakes up half pinned in her bed by an indiscriminate and not-particularly-appealing stranger. Her life is a mess and, though she doesn’t acknowledge the extent of the mess, she’s determined to fix it—by seducing her high school boyfriend away from his wife and newborn child.
Theron has the job of carrying a film as an entirely unlikable main character. And she’s not the funny kind of unlikeable, the wily, winking ne’er-do-well of your standard comedy flick. She’s a really repugnant human being—a dysfunctional, alcoholic narcissist who in her disregard for others could probably earn a legitimate diagnosis of psychopathy. Most interestingly, she has a sense of how deeply screwed up she is. Doomed, amoral and ridiculous from the start, Theron drinks her way through nearly every scene, but sits down late in the film with her parents and says almost casually, “I think I may be an alcoholic.” Her parents dismiss the notion in the way of parents refusing to believe ill of their child—parents who perhaps have never truly looked at or understood their child—and the issue is never raised again. That Theron’s character has carried this unspoken awareness or doubt through the film makes you wonder how many more of her deep flaws she recognizes, despite her insistence that she’s still on top of the world as only a pretty blonde cheerleader can be.
Theron needs a confidant to allow the audience into her head and serve as an unheeded voice of sanity, and that role is capably filled by comedian Patton Oswalt, cast as a high school loser made more tragic and more pathetic than usual—he’s permanently crippled by a beating he received from a bunch of jocks who mistakenly thought he was gay. The film does not let Oswalt’s character be the kind of funny nerd you can enjoy laughing at, just as it never lets Theron be a wacky goofball rather than a deeply disturbed woman.
The mix should be pretty unentertaining, but writer Diablo Cody sketches out the characters admirably, and Jason Reitman knows how to direct a story about sad and damaged people. There’s something in his style that feels very nearly documentary, without overly styling itself in that way. It’s an indie-film sensibility that seems to lay real, mundane life bare.
Together, Cody and Reitman let Theron’s character be outrageous without being redeemed by absurdity, and her wince-inducing selfishness spirals further out of control until she reaches a fabulous breakdown that is absolutely cringe-inducing, with no comic relief to ease the audience’s suffering. The film is willing to flout audience expectation in many ways, while finding other twists to narrowly satisfy audience expectations (surely you’ve seen enough of these movies to expect something to happen between Oswalt and Theron, right?) without subverting the characters or story with Hollywood crap.
The film doesn’t feel as real as Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air, where the characters felt a little more believable in their sad detachment, and it’s not as acerbic as Juno, where self-consciously sharp dialogue was as much a star as the brilliantly sardonic Ellen Page. But it belongs on the same shelf with both films, and is sure to entertain fans of either earlier effort.