Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Zach Galifianakis, Jutin Long, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Youth in Revolt is one of those movies that plays by its own rules, even seeming to make some up as it goes along. If someone asked to fully explain the plot I'm not sure I could since at about the midway point it totally flies off the rails without looking back. It almost seems constructed with the primary purpose of further infuriating anyone who already can't stand Michael Cera. They could have just gone ahead and titled it, The Further Adventures of Michael Cera and that would have given audiences just as good an idea of what to expect. But here's the thing with him: Yes, he does play the same geeky, awkward part over and over again and I was ready to completely write him off after starring in junk like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Year One, but when he's actually given sharp, witty material, I'm quickly willing to forgive. Shows you how far three years of Arrested Development goes. Maybe for the first time here, we're at least given a glimmer of hope that Cera might be playing this card as a career strategy rather than because of his potential limitations as an actor. It's a good sign, even if his biggest detractors will overlook that and be put off by this oddball film which features not only a strong performance from him, but an unconventional leading lady and some hilarious turns from well-known supporting players. It's messy and not for everyone, but it delivers the laughs.

Cera is 16-year-old Nick Twisp, a virginal outcast who hates his awesome last name, spins Frank Sinatra records and enjoys Fellini films. He lives in a dysfunctional household in Oakland with his emotionally fragile mother (Jean Smart) and her slimy live-in boyfriend, Jerry (Zack Galafianakis), who finds his life threatened by a group of sailors whom he owes money. He takes the family and escapes to a trailer park in Clearwater, where Nick meets the girl of his dreams in Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a beautiful, offbeat intellectual who just might be the only female who comes close to understanding him, or at least if she doesn't, is putting on a pretty good show. His competition is Trent Preston (Jonathan Bradford Wright), her poetry writing, star jock boyfriend, who spends most of the film as an unseen legend. When it's time to leave and Nick is faced with the harsh reality of never seeing her again, he creates an mustachioed, cigarette smoking bad boy alter-ego named Francois Dillinger in an effort to get himself kicked out of the house so he can move in with his biological father, George (Steve Buscemi) and closer to Sheeni.

"Awkward" is the only word that could accurately describe nearly every interaction, line of dialogue and event that occurs in this picture. The dialogue has this stilted, deadpan quality to it that the actors seem to have all perfected with varying degrees of nonchalance. It's the kind of dialogue that can get under your skin really quickly if you're not a fan of that kind of humor and you'll probably know within the first few minutes where you stand on it. Anyone's tolerance for Cera is likely to be another big determining factor since he's in every scene and playing a dual role, even if his arrogant alter ego doesn't get as much screen time as the trailers and commercials hinted at (to the point that you'd think it would be a film about multiple personality disorder). It's really just a variation on the geek gets the girl, only we're not sure if Sheeni's even remotely interested or just taking him for a ride thanks to Doubleday's performance, which is what makes the story click. The unknown steals the film from under Cera with her charm, even occasionally upstaging her co-star in the sarcasm department. She's worth keeping an eye on.

In his scenes as Nick's alter-ego, Francois, Cera is finally pushed a little bit out of his comfort zone with a character different from the sensitive nerds that have become his specialty and responds to the challenge. It's hardly a major test of his skills as a dramatic actor, but it's enough to show that he's capable of playing unlikable if necessary. Most of the big laughs come from everyone else though. Justin Long as Sheeni's stoned-out brother. M. Emmett Walsh and Mary Kay Place as her religiously fanatic parents. Fred Willard as a kooky neighbor. The best is Ray Liotta as Officer Wescott, basically playing a variation on his psychotic cop from last year's Observe and Report, which is welcome since he's really good at it and works as the perfect foil for Nick. When we finally meet the infamous antagonist Trent Preston, it's to the film's credit that he fulfills every negative expectation we have of him in hilarious ways. The movie goes crazy in the third act when Nick goes on a road trip to a French boarding school, but as shameful as it is to admit, I was laughing through most of it. Cheap laughs for sure, but you can't tell me it isn't funny seeing Cera set an entire town ablaze.

The film is based on the 1993 cult novel, Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, by C.D. Payne and it does come off like something that's intended more for the page than screen. Director Miguel Arteta nicely finds ways around that by employing quirky gimmicks like cartoon fantasy sequences and claymation in an attempt to visually capture the novel's eccentricities. Having not read the novel I can't say if it does, but his choices fit the screenplay, taking us into the mind of the protagonist(s). Despite being based on a teenage coming-of-age novel and containing all the elements of that genre, the black humor seems more sophisticated than you'd typically expect from a movie about teens. This could be a welcome case of a risky adaptation that dares to turn off the very audience you'd figure it's aimed at. I can't imagine this being any less stranger than the novel or dumbed down in any way, which is a relief, even if the story is as familiar as Michael Cera. Youth in Revolt can almost be seen as his warm-up for the upcoming, highly anticipated Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which may or may not be Cera's send-off for the character type he's spent his brief career mastering. Until then I'll just keep complaining has to try something new and end up enjoying his usual act anyway.


Daniel said...

Enjoyed this one as well, it's original sensibilty was a real attraction, great review.

Andy the Time Lord said...

Spot on review, Jeremy. I, too, haven't read the book, but I do appreciate director Arteta's attempt to create "quirky gimmicks" such as the opening credits and the cartoons popping out of Nick's sex book.

Can't wait to see SCOTT PILGRIM; I've been looking forward to that far more than INCEPTION, honestly. The day is almost upon us!

jeremythecritic said...

Agreed. Scott Pilgrim looks excellent.