Charlize Theron's first major role in three years (yes, since Hancock, since The Burning Plain) finds the actress in fine form.
Actually, scratch that. It finds Theron in terrible form: In Young Adult, an uncomfortable comedy from the Juno team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, Theron is Mavis Gary, a boozing, depressed ghostwriter for a tween girls book series.
Mavis staggers around her Minneapolis high-rise apartment like a zombie in sweats, stuffing her face with junk food, trolling the Internet - anything to avoid writing. And then she gets an e-mail with an announcement - her high school beau and his wife have had a baby.
This news sends Mavis into a profound funk - followed shortly thereafter by a profoundly bad idea. She's going to go back to her little hometown and steal Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from his new family, destroy his marriage, reclaim what's rightfully hers. She piles into her Mini Cooper, pops in a mix tape, and heads for hicksville. All sorts of destructive, obsessive, disastrous behavior follows.
"Mavis really has this incredible loneliness, that's where all of this stems from," says Theron about the messed-up woman she plays in Young Adult. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, in Philadelphia and other markets Dec. 16. Theron, winner of the best actress Academy Award for her grueling turn as a serial killer in 2004's Monster, is generating Oscar buzz again for this latest role.
But back to the loneliness, the emptiness.
"I think that's what people connect with," Theron said recently on the phone from New York. "Because there are things that she does that we might not connect with - that are, in fact, pretty despicable. She does stuff that is hard to watch. But this foundation of loneliness, and this lack of a tool set to deal with these very adult issues. . . . I think that's moving, and relatable, and also very entertaining."
Some of the most moving and entertaining parts of Reitman's film come when Theron's Mavis strikes up a friendship with a townie she meets in a bar - and who had watched her longingly, and invisibly, back in their old high school days. Comedian Patton Oswalt plays this guy, who comes with his own emotional - and physical - handicaps.
"I had never met Patton before," Theron says. "And he's incredible. Funny, perceptive. And his character is kind of ethically there, whereas Mavis has thrown her ethics out the window."
Theron says that she had wanted to work with filmmaker Reitman since she first saw his George Clooney/Vera Farmiga dramedy Up in the Air in 2009. The actress ran into Reitman at the 2010 Oscar ceremonies, and "I just did a very embarrassing thing where I had to let him know how much I loved his film," she recalls. "I gushed."
Three months later, Reitman spotted Theron across the tables in a Hollywood restaurant.
"That's when he told me about the script," she says. "And then he sent it to me, and I said yes."
Yes, but with trepidation.
"It scared me - not in the sense of the subject matter, but more in the sense that I better not eff this up." She laughs. "Like, can I actually pull this off?"
But Theron "definitely saw all the potential that this character had. For me, it always takes a little while to figure things out. . . . I had to sit with it a bit, think about it and daydream about it and get scared of it and say, 'No, no, I don't think so,' and then . . . 'Yes, OK!' "
Right now, Theron is finishing work in London on Snow White and the Huntsman, a new take on the old fairy tale, with Twilight's Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Theron as the Evil Queen.
"I get to sit on a throne and boss people around," she reports. "I took right to it."
She's also filmed Prometheus, Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi - a big-budget, effects-driven, outer-space thriller in marked contrast to the small, 30-day shoot of Young Adult. "As different as night and day," she says.
Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, and Theron's Young Adult stalkee, Wilson, are in this one, which, despite blog postings to the contrary, is not a prequel to Scott's Alien.
"It isn't, really," Theron affirms. "It's a stand-alone movie with some of the DNA of that world of Alien. . . .
"I'm not really big on genre movies," she adds, "but I love Ridley's films, and Alien, and Blade Runner. Ridley really defined the genre. It's great storytelling at the end of the day."
Philadelphia Sundance news. It doesn't start until Jan. 19, but already the first batch of titles in competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival have been announced. Among them, two with local ties: The End of Love, a drama about a guy who loses the woman who had his child, with former Philadelphian Mark Webber in the lead and behind the camera, and The Atomic States of America, a documentary investigation of nuclear power safety, from Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce - the team behind the controversial Barnes Foundation doc The Art of the Steal.
For info on the Park City, Utah, fest, go to: www.sundance.org/festival/