'Young Adult' is a Female Stereotype-Buster


There's a scene early in "Young Adult" where Charlize Theron, looking as bleary-eyed as a sublime beauty can, chugs from a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke as part of a morning wake-up routine.

"I can relate to that scene," screenwriter Diablo Cody says with a laugh.

Cody doesn't write characters who fit the sunny romantic comedy landscape where lovely women and handsome men overcome silly obstacles to realize they're made for each other. This explains why there's something about her latest movie, which opens Dec. 16, that seems relatable to the 2011 hit "Bridesmaids" -- even though the two are worlds apart.

Where "Bridesmaids" was a raunchy broad comedy with a heart of gold, "Young Adult" is a challenging dark comedy about a grown-up mean girl. But in both screen universes, it's possible to conceive of women who swill soda straight from the fridge and have deeper imperfections.

"In 'Bridesmaids,' we got to see flawed women, with their flaws on display, behaving in realistic and sometimes irresponsible ways," Cody says. "It's sad, in a way, that that was so refreshing and new, because to me, there should be all kinds of movies out there that depict women realistically. But there aren't."

Now there's one more. "Young Adult" reunites Cody and director Jason Reitman, who worked together on her 2007 breakthrough film, "Juno," which earned her an Oscar for best original screenplay.

Like that film about a hip, punk-rock-loving pregnant teen with a mind of her own, this one contains an indelible female character that doesn't fit any convenient stereotypes.

In "Young Adult," Theron plays Mavis, a ghost writer for a young adult fiction series who's left her small Minnesota town for the bright lights of Minneapolis, only to be drawn home after finding out that her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills) are new parents. While there on a mission to win him back, Mavis bumps into another ex-classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), an outsider who's still dealing with the scars of his teen years.

Cody wasn't afraid to make Mavis a hard-to-like person who's vain, self-absorbed and prone to drinking too much. Mavis watches reality shows about the Kardashians and totes around a tiny dog and an attitude that's mostly superior, but also sensitive to the reality that her facade is as pre-fabricated as the fast food she binges on.

What's frustrating to Cody, who also created Showtime's "United States of Tara" series about a wife and mother with multiple personalties, is that Mavis is so unusual for a female character.

"There's so many movies about disturbed male anti-heroes. We've seen so many. We've seen so many guys onscreen grappling with alcoholism or obsession and getting to be curmudgeons. We always celebrate these male curmudgeons. But you don't see it as often with women."

And yet "Young Adult" is arriving at a time when audiences seem increasingly interested in projects featuring women who don't necessarily fit stereotypical molds. The TV sitcoms "New Girl" "and "Up All Night" -- both created by female writers -- are getting critical acclaim in a lackluster year for new shows. "Bridesmaids," written by "Saturday Night Live" star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, earned nearly $170 million domestically in theaters and is out on DVD now.

Two rising actresses, Emma Stone of "Crazy Stupid Love" and "The Help" and Melissa McCarthy of "Bridesmaids," drew praise as being the best "Saturday Night Live" hosts of the season -- sorry, Alec Baldwin.

Even a less critically well-received project like "Bad Teacher" with Cameron Diaz made $100 million in domestic box office, showing that audiences are responding to untraditional roles for women.

Evolution of a character

Cody, who's on the vanguard of creating offbeat female characters, says she wasn't really sure who Mavis was at first when she wrote "Young Adult." The film delivers as much drama as comedy in its portrait of Mavis as a thirtysomething woman stalled in life.

"I just kind of created the character and followed her through some situations. Then the script started to take shape and when I thought I had a pretty good first draft I sent it to Jason, just to get his opinion."

When Reitman came on board as director, Cody was delighted. "I always want to work with Jason," she says of the "Juno" director. She had a similarly enthusiastic response to the idea of casting Oswalt, who had a recurring role on "United States of Tara."

"I was like, done and done," she says, describing Oswalt as a brilliant actor and probably the best comic today.

Picturing Theron as Mavis was another matter.

"My first reaction was just happiness when I heard she had agreed to do the movie, because she is incredible," Cody says. "On the other hand, I'm from the Midwest and I've never seen anybody who looks like her. I don't even think I've ever seen anybody who looks like her in America, in Los Angeles, let alone Minneapolis. So I thought this character needs to be somewhat pitiful. Who could pity her? And then you see the genius of what she does and what an amazing actress she is, because I do think she is pitiable in this movie."

Cody says she should have known that the 36-year-old actress, who won an Oscar for playing a slovenly serial killer in "Monster," could handle Mavis easily. Already, Theron is making the short list of Oscar nomination predictions for immersing herself in such a different role.

As one of the best-known female screenwriters around, Cody represents a growing number of women, including her friends Lorene Scafaria ("Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"), Dana Fox ("What Happens in Vegas") and former metro Detroiter Liz Meriwether ("New Girl"). The number of women being recognized for their work on a range of scripts continues to grow and, in turn, the success stories are helping the newcomers.

"It seems like every time a new lady writer comes to town, they are welcomed into the fold in some way," Cody says. "We've created this amazing satellite network of women who support each other as writers and directors. I think it's so important to us because people expect the opposite, for some reason. They think women are just catty and competitive and that's not the truth. I've seen guys get a lot more catty and competitive in Hollywood with each other."

Cody is working on a project with strong Detroit ties. She's helping revise what she calls a wonderful script for the remake of "The Evil Dead" that's being produced by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert, the trio of friends who, as unknown metro Detroiters, made a huge impact with the original 1981 version.

Has she seen the first "Evil Dead"? "Of course, I saw the original!" she says, pleasantly indignant. "I'm a huuuuge fan of Sam Raimi and a huge fan of Bruce Campbell and I would have not gotten involved in this if they weren't involved as well. When I had the opportunity to talk to Sam and Bruce, I thought, 'OK, I've got to do this.' "

She's also getting her first opportunity to direct one of her scripts. The project is set to star Julianne Hough, Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer of "The Help." Cody says she was inspired to direct by Scafaria, who just helmed an upcoming movie with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.

Even though Cody is at the forefront of acclaimed writers in Hollywood, she makes it clear she is upset that there is still pressure for women to prove they're funny and can write successful movies and direct them.

"We don't put that kind of pressure on men," she says. "They can just go and make a movie. It's not a huge sweeping statement about their entire gender. That, to me, is what is so frustrating."

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