One of the early trailers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the David Fincher adaptation of history’s most successful Swedish potboiler, promised “the feel-bad movie of the year.” It was a good line, but it wasn’t truth in advertising. Despite its long parade of rapes, assaults, and serial murders, The Dragon Tattoo in all its iterations (the Stieg Larsson novel, the Swedish film, and now Fincher’s version) is fundamentally a conventional revenge fantasy: Dirty Harry for nerdy Marxists, you might say, in which a left-wing journalist and the leather-clad lesbian computer whiz who sleeps with him mete out long-overdue justice to rich woman-hating Nazis. Despite its lurid material and exotic locales, it actually boasts one of the more predictable story arcs of Hollywood’s holiday season — and indeed, of any project that the prickly Fincher has undertaken.
To find the real feel-bad movie of the year, you’ll have to turn to a less eccentric but equally talented director: Jason Reitman (the son of the comedy impresario Ivan Reitman), whose oeuvre — Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and 2009’s Up in the Air — has quietly established him as one of the sharpest observers of the contemporary American scene. His latest film, Young Adult, re-teams him with the Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, and it pushes past the tragicomedy of his earlier movies into far darker terrain. Sold as a black comedy in the Bad Santa/Bad Teacher vein, Young Adult is really a tragedy disguised with laugh lines, which turns the clichés of high-school dramas and adult rom-coms to bleak and entirely unsentimental ends.
Reitman’s protagonist is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a former high-school queen bee — gorgeous, leggy, and self-centered — who’s grown up to be the superficially successful ghostwriter of a series of popular Gossip Girl–style young-adult novels. Her career pays for a large, arid, and unkempt apartment in a Minneapolis high-rise, a Mini Cooper, and the kind of yappy little dog that every reality-TV starlet seems to covet — which isn’t a surprise, since Mavis’s flat-screen is constantly blaring the troubles of Real Housewives, Bachelorettes, and Kardashians.
It takes a birth announcement from her high-school beau (Patrick Wilson) to jolt her out of this endless feedback loop of narcissism, and into a feedback loop of self-delusion instead. After eyeing the baby picture for a while, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown of Mercury, pretending that she has real-estate business to conduct in order to buy time to seduce her ex-boyfriend away from domesticity and back into her bed. What follows is an escalating series of uncomfortable come-ons, in which Mavis proves that you can’t go back to high school, even as her sense of entitlement plumbs ever-more-horrifying depths.