Stay with me for a second because this is a stretch of a comparison even for an introduction. When I rewatched Taxi Driver last fall, I was amazed at how much I wanted Travis Bickle to win. I should hate him. He's a racist nut-case who is going to kill a bunch of people out of vigilante justice. Yet I'm rooting for him. I'm not sympathizing with him, but I'm certainly empathizing with him. George Clooney excels at playing these sorts of characters such as Michael Clayton, Ryan Bingham, Matt King, and several more. Well, in Jason Reitman's fourth film (his second written by Diablo Cody), he manages to really play with expectations in how much we want to like the protagonist of this story.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) lives in Minneapolis and writes young adult fiction as a ghost writer. She lives a dulling high society life and walks around with a little dog in her bag. She learns that her old high school crush Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has a daughter and is happily married, prompting Mavis to return home and try to win him back. Mid-life crisis? Complete insanity? Whatever the case, Mavis decides to return to her small home town that the pure mention of seems to disgust her.
Reitman and Cody have what sounds like a comedic concept, but they handle it a very dramatic and sometimes intentionally unfunny way. They've created a highly complex character with Mavis and this film completely surrounds her, explores her, and Theron is completely bare and brave in her portrayal. Reitman and Cody previously made a film about a young girl stuck in an adult world and where Juno had that "aw, that was cute" factor to it, that is completely tossed away in favor of a character study where everyone has so many aspects to them coming out of their personal and professional lives. These feel like people we all know. None of them are cartoons. Mavis not being able to realize what she has become is partially a joke, but a tragic joke at that.
The supporting cast is top-notch as well. Patrick Wilson conveys a polite man whom Mavis sees as having been completely brainwashed by his wife into an idle lifestyle. At certain points I almost felt sorry for him but that was because I was seeing him through the eyes of Mavis. The one character who also steals the show is Matt (Patton Oswalt). He was a guy who was physically damaged in high school and in many ways like Mavis is still stuck in the past. He is the guy that helps make Mavis and her craziness seem believable to us as the audience and one of the few that Mavis can't change our opinion of. Oswalt, like in Big Fan, shows great promise as an actor of many shades. The chemistry between him and Theron ends up being such a welcome surprise.
The fact that I see this movie marketed as a comedy is I think part of the joke. It certainly has funny moments, but take the ending for example. It's an unoptimistic ending shrouded in optimism. The result is mature, tragic, and most importantly fearless. A film that constantly defies expectations is a huge trimuph in the career of its already highly regarded director. Reitman is such a welcome voice to storytelling and with Cody's sharp writing, the result is highly inspired