Happy endings are strictly for the storybooks, but Charlize Theron has trouble accepting this as the author of a teen book series in this wonderfully crisp comedy drama.
Evidently, director Jason Reitman doesn't put much stock in romantic sunsets either as his previous film Up in the Air was similarly focussed on emotionally stunted grownups going round in circles. In this one, Mavis (Theron) is convinced that happiness lies with her old high school sweetheart - even though he's married with a new-born child.
Her judgment is so skewed, it's painfully funny. Mavis was the type who couldn't wait to get out of her hick hometown, but at 40 her horizons seem limited to the end of her bed where she wakes up every day - face down with a hangover - and the small desk where she hacks out corny teen romance novels.
Her life wasn't supposed to be like this. Mavis was the prettiest, most popular girl in school and (going against the stereotype) not entirely dumb either. In her mind's eye, she is entitled to have whatever she wants. After coming back to town, she makes that known to Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky outcast and unlikely friend who serves as the voice of reason.
Patrick Wilson wears an amusing fixed grin as Buddy, Mavis's high school jock of a boyfriend who also happens to be (going against the stereotype) an all-round nice guy. He's mostly stunned when she comes crashing back into his life, boobs hoisted high, after receiving news of the baby's arrival from - as Mavis sees it - his smug bitch of a wife (Elizabeth Reaser).
With a broken marriage behind her, Mavis gets her glad rags on to take back the man she suddenly decides is "my moon, my stars, my whole galaxy" (a line she lifts from gossiping schoolgirls). But even in her finery, Mavis is a horror to behold. It's an audacious turn by Theron, but for all the cleverly scripted scorn that drips off her tongue, she always looks on the verge of tears.
Because Mavis is such a child at heart, you can't hate her entirely. Her foolish attempts to rekindle the flame only heighten the sadness of her life. The tension becomes almost unbearable as fantasy and reality threaten to collide, but it's the kind of dread that makes you want to laugh.
Reitman sets the tone (reteaming with Juno scribe Diablo Cody) so that it's painfully obvious things won't end well for Mavis. He pushes her luck as far as it will go with one of the most excruciating love scenes ever filmed - not just because Theron is made to look deeply unsexy, but because the seduction is a purely selfish act.
In the end, it's over too quickly and Reitman doesn't offer much comfort for Mavis's future. This sort of open ending was more bitterly poignant in Up in the Air, because George Clooney dug deep to make a change. Here, Mavis only skims the surface of her emotional problems after being swayed off track by a hilariously misguided pep talk from Matt's dumpy sister (Collette Wolfe).
If there's a moral to the story Mavis seems sure not to find it, but she does leaves a bigger impression than your average romantic heroine. Be swept up in the whirlwind!