Charlize Theron tries to steal her bland, nice-guy old flame from his wife in "Young Adult," opening Dec. 9 in Manhattan and going wide next week.
So is it a modern-day screwball rom-com? No. A "Fatal Attraction"-style psycho thriller? No. A ruefully funny drama of an emotionally stunted former high-school goddess making a Hail Mary pass at having a grown-up life? Yeah. You know. One of those.
"It's a tricky one to send out into the world," acknowledges Oscar winner Theron ("Monster"), speaking by phone from a Manhattan hotel. "We never talked about this being a comedy or a drama; we didn't play anything for comedy or drama -- we just tried to tell a truthful story about this girl. The films I like," she says, "are those that don't fit into a genre block."
Nowhere is that more apparent than when Theron's Mavis Gary -- a 37-year-old ghostwriter of young-adult novels -- is back from "big city" Minneapolis visiting her Minnesota hometown. At a kitchen table, proud and haughty, she tells her parents with feigned casualness, "I think I'm an alcoholic" -- and her parents don't take her seriously. At a New York screening, that scene drew stunned sympathy from an audience that recognized it as tragedy. Yet elsewhere, says Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, reteamed here with her "Juno" director, Jason Reitman, "Most of the times that I've sat in on a screening, that line's gotten a laugh."
That's even how she intended it. "It's Midwestern humor," explains Cody, who grew up in Illinois and, like Mavis, was a young adult in Minneapolis. When told of the screening audience's reaction, she thought about it for a moment and then realized, "That line is kind of horrifying."
It was for Theron. "I found it really, really sad," says the actress. "What I loved about that moment is how Diablo and Jason got across the circumstances of the house she grew up in. There wasn't a lot of awareness of who she was."
Who she is now seems to be a monstrously self-centered homewrecker -- outwardly. But thanks to the film's tightrope walk of tone and to Theron's complete immersion in the multilayered core of this person, Mavis is a comprehensible human being. "I think Mavis is searching," says Reitman. "I think everyone can kind of understand that feeling of trying to find the on ramp" -- in this case, to adulthood -- "and having no idea where it is."
A teen sensibility
Budgeted at a microscopic $12 million, says Reitman, and shot in 30 days, "Young Adult" began as a spec script -- one not written as a paid assignment. "I had been asked repeatedly," Cody says, "why I wrote about teenagers so much," what with the protagonists of "Juno" (2007) and "Jennifer's Body" (2009). "And I always had a pat answer. But as time went on I started to think, 'Why do I? Am I having problems growing up, that I need to live vicariously through these young characters?' " She started writing, "projecting my own fears onto Mavis, and then she just started to grow into a dark manifestation of the worst person I could be."
Cody sent drafts to pal Reitman for feedback, and when production on his adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel "Labor Day" got pushed into next year, "a window opened up," he says, "and I had the opportunity to make this."
He approached Theron, and while this film will likely net the actress her third Oscar nomination, she had to initially turn it down. "I was getting ready to go to Australia to do prep for ' Fury Road,' " she explains. But when that project then got pushed to a 2012 start date, she and Reitman reconnected. She took 10 days off, returned to New York, "and in a month we were shooting."
Patrick Wilson ("Watchmen," TV's "A Gifted Man") came aboard to play Buddy Slade, the object of Mavis' desire. Comic Patton Oswalt ("Big Fan") was hired after he and Theron clicked at a table-read of the script at Reitman's house.
Her drinking buddy
Indeed, Oswalt proves pivotal as gnomish yet clear-eyed and pragmatic old classmate Matt Freehauf, whom Mavis doesn't initially remember. With no friends in town, or even any indicated in Minneapolis, and nothing to do while she plots to win Buddy, Mavis hangs out with him -- mostly for drinking. "He seems to be the person that the audience watches the movie through," says Reitman. "I feel that he's often saying the things that the audience wants to say to Mavis."
The movie ultimately became, says the director, "a doomed romance." That could mean -- either or both, take your pick -- Mavis/Buddy or Mavis/Matt.
"I found that," Reitman says, "heartbreaking in the best way."
Five words that could be this movie's tagline.
LI bar manager is on tap for 'Young Adult'
BY FRANK LOVECE, Special to Newsday
'Young Adult" did location shooting in Minnesota, where the film takes place, but subbing for the fictional town of Mercury were White Plains, Nanuet, New City, Tappan, Ardsley and Port Chester, upstate, and both Garden City and Massapequa Park here on Long Island. (There were also a few days on a soundstage at JC Studios in Brooklyn.)
Four key scenes were shot Oct. 26-27, 2010, at Woody's Village Saloon on Park Boulevard in Massapequa Park: one in which Mavis (Charlize Theron) and Matt (Patton Oswalt) meet; another in which she stumbles out the front door; another outside the back door, and one in which she and Matt are in a booth and see her wheelchair-athlete cousin.
Louie LaSusa, manager of Woody's for the past 10 years, wound up in that last one, as a customer at the bar, his back to the camera. "One kid clinks a beer with me," he says, "and there's a woman next to me, in her 50s, from Manhattan, who had her hand on my shoulder, talking to me like she's my girlfriend." On the first day of shooting, he adds, the crew had a birthday party for director Jason Reitman, who had turned 33 on Oct. 19.
And though LaSusa kept a respectful distance from Theron, she was gracious, when before the last shot, he gave her a World Cup Soccer shirt from her native South Africa. "She said to me, 'Louie, you were great, you kept everybody away from me, everything went great, thank you very much.' "