Motherhood and Monsters: The Films of Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron
Diablo Cody burst onto the scene with her Oscar-winning screenplay for teen comedy Juno, which immediately marked her as one of the most exciting new writing talents in Hollywood. Juno’s instantly quotable dialogue clearly established Cody as a unique comedic voice, but the clarity with which that dialogue conveyed her characters’ emotions and their relationships to one another demonstrated that she would be much more than a one-hit wonder. When you consider the balance of comedy and pathos that has characterized all of Cody’s work (and her particular focus on underexplored stories about complex female protagonists), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Charlize Theron has become one of her key creative collaborators over the past several years.
Cody followed up Juno with her underappreciated sophomore effort Jennifer’s Body, a high school horror-comedy. Like its predecessor, Jennifer’s Body focused on the experience of a teenage female protagonist and featured distinctly stylized dialogue befitting its milieu. With this trend firmly in place, she could have carved out a niche for herself as Hollywood’s go-to scribe for the quirky teen comedy, but Cody clearly had grander aspirations. When asked about her apparent focus on adolescent protagonists, Cody didn’t bristle at the question; instead, she found inspiration in it for her next project. She wasn’t personally fixated on the teenage experience, but what if she wrote about someone who was?
Enter Mavis Gary, the protagonist of Cody’s next film, Young Adult. The author of a fairly popular young adult series of novels, Mavis is in a state of perpetually arrested development, unable to let go of her past and trying desperately to reclaim it. Mavis is not your typical protagonist–viciously calculating and bitterly selfish, she spends the entire film trapped in a prison of self-delusion and mental illness that manifests itself in an escalating pattern of self-destructive behavior. Critically, however, Cody’s screenplay trains a sympathetic eye on Mavis; the film never absolves her of her behavior, but neither does it condemn her. And as a performer who has made a career out of delivering sympathetic portrayals of unsympathetic characters, Charlize Theron was the ideal collaborator to bring this creation to life. Theron’s natural charisma and Cody’s empathetic perspective allow Mavis to keep the audience on her side despite her missteps, and it leads to a more interesting performance and film. It’s a perfect marriage of their artistic sensibilities.
That partnership paid off again with their second collaboration: Tully. As Cody’s writing matures and her career progresses, her comedic bite has softened somewhat, replaced instead with deeper emotional resonance that mirrors Theron’s development as an actress. It’s a natural progression for both Cody and Theron, as each of them have devoted their careers to exploring emotionally complex stories about underserved women. With Tully, which reunited them with Juno and Young Adult director Jason Reitman, they presented a deeply layered view of motherhood we don't often see at the movies. Sure, it can be a transformative and all-consuming experience (which Tully also depicts with uncommonly frank clarity), but motherhood doesn't vanish the woman that protagonist Marlo used to be. She's still there, just waiting to be unleashed. Theron and Cody are the perfect team to push back against the often-reductive presentation of mothers (and soon-to-be mothers) on screen, because they've both spent their careers sidestepping conventional ideas of how women should behave in film.
There are obvious recurring themes present in all of Cody’s work, and Young Adult and Tully are no exception. Both films feature moments of dark comedy characterized by an acidic wit and cut with genuine pathos. Her characters may not always be “likeable,” but Cody always regards them with an empathetic gaze. The heightened dialogue of her screenplays gets much of the attention, but what makes Cody more than just a gimmick is her attention to detail in her observations of the everyday lives of women: from teens dealing with unplanned pregnancy (Juno) or the sexual and social politics of high school (Jennifer’s Body) to women struggling with mental illness (Young Adult, TV’s United States of Tara), postpartum difficulties (Tully), and the external and internal challenges of choosing artistic pursuits over family (Ricki and the Flash). These are characters who are often either absent from the cinematic canon or who otherwise find themselves relegated to the periphery of film narratives, but in Cody’s movies, they’re front and center. Even as she grapples with morally challenging scenarios and highlights experiences specific to women, her work never feels preachy or reductive. Her characters are allowed to be imperfect while still retaining their dignity. That approach mirrors Theron’s interest in bringing morally thorny narratives and emotionally complex characters to the screen, so it’s no surprise that they bring out some of each other’s best work. Hopefully they reunite for another project soon.