19 December 2011 | EUyeshima
Theron Delivers the Goods as the Unrepentant Queen of Small-Town Mean
Without an iota of irony, Charlize Theron finally uses her intimidating beauty for pure Machiavellian evil, and the results are fortuitous in this dark-hued 2011 comedy, the latest collaboration of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno"). She's absolutely spot-on terrific playing Mavis Gary, the condescending, hateful high school girl who comes back to Mercury, her podunk hometown nearly two decades later. Mavis is no Blanche Dubois-type character whose ladylike beauty has faded into a gauzy romantic delusion. No, Mavis is still one hot babe and very much the complete narcissist she was as a teenager, emotionally stunted despite her relative worldliness having moved to Minneapolis to become a ghostwriter of a series of teen novels.
It's not surprising she finds success writing for an adolescent audience since she still defines her life with teenage-level priorities and fantasies. As she has proved with "Juno", Cody is thoroughly fluent with this perspective, but the twist is that this time, it's coming from a jaded 37-year-old woman. Even though Mavis is a divorcée who lives in a high-rise apartment with a toy dog and can easily get any man she wants, she is triggered by a birth announcement email she receives from her high school sweetheart Buddy Slade and becomes fixated on getting him back all these years later. It doesn't matter that he's happily married and perfectly content living in Mercury. She concocts a scheme to make herself so alluring that he will want to run away with her. Normally, this would be an excuse for broad comedy machinations, but Theron is so gorgeous that it makes her shameless attempts at seduction all the more edgily desperate.
It's a narrowly developed plot for sure, but surprisingly, what enriches the proceedings is the unexpected relationship Mavis develops with Matt Freehauf, a sad-sack former classmate whose sole claim to notoriety was being the victim of a hate crime when he was beaten up and left for dead by a group of jocks who assumed he was gay. He has been left crippled, living in Mercury with his sister making his own home-brewed bourbon and putting together mix-and-match action figures. That Mavis and Matt connect is all the more intriguing since they were at opposite ends of the social spectrum back in school, and their present-day bond is also fueled by her obvious alcoholism, a point that is overlooked by her befuddled parents who wish to think of Mavis as the flawless pretty daughter of their own deluded fantasies. The story evolves in the direction you would expect but not before certain revelations come to light in a tortuous scene at the baby-naming party Buddy and his sensible wife Beth have with all their relatives and close friends in attendance.
Beyond Theron's fearless work and intentionally deadpan line delivery, there is comedian Patton Oswalt's surprisingly affecting performance as Matt. I only know him from his recurring role as a comical sad-sack on the sitcom "King of Queens", so it's surprising to see the amount of texture he brings to this role. As Buddy, Patrick Wilson once again plays the sought-after himbo, but this time, his character's unshaven, small-town modesty comes across as more contrite with his character's feelings toward Mavis left quite elliptical. Elizabeth Reaser ("Sweet Land") isn't given that much to do as Beth, probably by intention, but Collette Wolf has a few impactful moments as Matt's insulated sister still idolizing Mavis after all these years. As he showed with "Juno" and "Up in the Air", Reitman shows a deft hand with actors playing flawed characters who try to manipulate their circumstances but fall short of their vaunted expectations.