(CNN) -- Charlize Theron won an Oscar for covering up her beauty and finding grains of sympathy, as well as revulsion, for the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."
She deserves to win a second nomination for playing the sexy, unmoored, utterly reprehensible Mavis Gary in "Young Adult." Mavis is one of those people blessed with good looks, talent and brains, but whose sense of entitlement far outstrips any civilized social boundaries. She's a pure narcissist, oblivious to other people's feelings and contemptuous of any experience that doesn't feed her own ego. In other words, Mavis is another monster, but a monster who can pass for beautiful with only a couple of hours in the salon.
As we know (you see it spread all over the supermarket tabloids every week), there's a perverse thrill in watching one of the beautiful people fall apart. And there's some of that same schadenfreude in play while watching the new black comedy from the "Juno" combo, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman.
Mavis is a ghostwriter for a successful young adult book series, and even that minor claim to fame is soon to be extinguished: The series is played out and the novel she is working on will be the last of them. Perhaps that's why she feels compelled to head back home when she receives an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), announcing the birth of his first child. Figuring, very, very, wrongly, that this message must be some kind of coded cry for help, Mavis hops into her Mini and heads straight to Mercury, Minnesota, where she grew up, and where she means to reconnect with Buddy and free him from his domesticated servitude.
As plans go, this one has "recipe for disaster" written all over it. But Mavis sees things differently: It's all for love, a romantic quest, the oldest story in the book. First, though, she bumps into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a broken-down part-time waiter with a bum leg, who claims to have had the locker next to hers all through high school. The cane is a giveaway - "You're the Hate Crime Guy!" -- the hetero victim of a gay-bashing in senior year that left him crippled and understandably bitter.
Reitman punctuates the movie with shots of Mavis putting on her camouflage: nail treatments, wardrobe choices. She has style and beauty at her fingertips. But the first time we see her we get a keener sense of this woman on a precipice: sprawled face down in bed, half undressed, hungover. It's the difference between Mavis as she wants to be seen and as she really is, if she could only admit it.
Matt is the only one she allows into her trust, either because she badly needs a drinking buddy and he has a distillery in his garage, or because she's so far above him in any social criteria that she understands he poses no discernible threat. But she's wrong about this, too (just as she's wrong about everything).
Hovering somewhere between Jiminy Cricket and partner-in-crime, Matt is the movie's comic safety valve. Oswalt steers a path for us, transfixed, attracted and appalled by this woman's reckless, tunnel-vision trajectory. Oswald is also the beneficiary of Cody's most sardonic one-liners, and could wind up with an Oscar nomination of his own.
Once or twice Mavis is permitted a shred of insight. Reluctantly reunited with her parents, she softly confesses that she thinks she might be an alcoholic. They foolishly laugh off the revelation, which if nothing else suggests where she may have come by her capacity for denial. Then toward the end, when denial just won't wash any longer, she talks about the necessity for change. But again, she chooses the wrong confessor, and promptly reverts to type.
It's a brave movie that crushes our hopes of redemption so conclusively, and a promising indication that Reitman and Cody are growing up. It's not hard to spot familiar feminist, or postfeminist themes from Cody's "Juno" and "Jennifer's Body" here, reworked with greater complexity and depth.
Partly that's a tribute to Theron's performance, of course, which never once succumbs to the "psychotic prom queen b****" caricature that one character thinks she sees. Even when she's at her worst (almost all the time), there's always an undertow of panic and disturbance in Mavis, the barely suppressed horror that time is running out and she's thrown her eggs in the wrong basket.
We may find it impossible to like her, but it's easy to feel sorry for her.