Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary is a kindred spirit to Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg, the aggressively unpleasant antihero of Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film. Like Greenberg, sour, vain Mavis is a frustrated artist—a ghost writer of Y.A. novels—caught in a pushing-40 rut. In Young Adult, the second collaboration from Juno’s creative team (writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman), Mavis road-trips from Minneapolis to her small Minnesota hometown to win back an old boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson)—even though he’s now happily married and a parent.
Cody, 33, calling from New York, says the Greenberg comparison occurred to her as soon as she saw the Baumbach film, although she’d written Young Adult beforehand. “I wondered if it was going to play differently with a woman, because I think people have an easier time swallowing a neurotic male,” she says. “Everybody loves a curmudgeon. But you don’t really see female curmudgeons. Unfortunately, when you see a neurotic woman in movies, it means that she’s cute and falls down a lot.”
Mavis is something else entirely: a bombshell who’s developed an unhealthy sense of entitlement, and who’s delusional about the prospects of getting together with Buddy, to the point of sabotaging his life. The film, both Reitman’s and Cody’s best to date, is a delicate balancing act that never ventures too broadly into caricature or seeks to redeem its off-putting protagonist. “I just did not want Mavis to have a tidy Hollywood redemption arc,” Cody says. “That was probably the most important thing to me.”
Drowning her woes in booze, Mavis meets up with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a loner from her youth who’s still crippled from a high-school beating. Oswalt, 42, sees certain affinities between Matt and some of the other characters he’s played, notably the obsessive football enthusiast in Big Fan. “I do think that I have a bit of an empathy for the outcast,” he says, also from New York. “Even though I’m married, I have a kid, I have friends, but I do have those sort of outcast-loner tendencies where I value solitude sometimes in an aggressive way.”
But he’s also great at putting on a public face for his fans. At a Q&A after a surprise screening of Young Adult at the Music Box in late October, he bantered with followers who’d heard about the screening through his Twitter account (where his hints were enough to blow the surprise). For someone of his profile, Oswalt remains relatively accessible. “I think I keep just the right amount of distance versus availability, so I think that stalking me loses its allure,” he says.
Oswalt went semi-Method for the role, working with a physical therapist and reading medical reports on the kinds of injuries that Matt would have. Cody also sees Young Adult as a new bid for seriousness. “I wouldn’t say I was necessarily going through a darker time in my life when I wrote it, but I was making an attempt to do something more grounded,” she explains. Having lived in either Chicago or its suburbs for 25 years, Cody, who now calls L.A. home, had only a four-year sojourn in Minneapolis, yet still considers the latter city her favorite place to write about, in part because she brings an outsider’s perspective to it.
Asked if Mavis is based on her, Cody shrugs it off. “There’s aspects of me in any character I’m going to write,” she says. “I’m certainly not inclined togo to my hometown and try to break up a marriage.”
Young Adult opens Friday 9.