January 05, 2010

Youth in Revolt

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Youth in Revolt

ROMANCE/COMEDY:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2010-01-08

Running Length:

1:30

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, M. Emmett Walsh, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Justin Long, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Fred Willard

Director:

Michael Arteta

Screenplay:

Bustin Nash, based on the novel by C.D. Payne

Cinematography:

Chuy Chavez

Music:

John Swihart

U.S. Distributor:

Dimension Films

Subtitles:

none


From the beginning, it's apparent that there's something "off" about Youth in Revolt. It's not that the film is fatally flawed, but the tone is uneven, the satire is blunt, the comedy rarely generates more than feeble laughs, and the lead character never comes fully to life. A shadow of the novel from which it has been adapted, Youth in Revolt tries to be something more than disposable, forgettable entertainment, but doesn't quite succeed. In the end, it's really nothing more than a tepid teenage romantic comedy with a few quirks. Fans of C.D. Payne's Nick Twisp novels will probably be more disappointed than those who have never heard of Payne or read his writing.

Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is a sex-obsessed 16-year old (he has been aged by two years from the book) who views his virginity as a badge of shame but can't seem to find a girl to help fix the problem. That changes when he goes on a vacation to a Bible trailer park with his mother, Estelle (Jean Smart), and her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). There, he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), and it's love at first sight, at least for him. Sheeni likes him but not in the same obsessive way. In order to make this more than a summer fling, Nick implements a complicated plot that will eventually pave the way for Sheeni to run away with him. With the help of his bad boy alter-ego, Francois, Nick commits several crimes, goes on the run from the cops, and assists in drugging Sheeni - all in the name of love.

In the novel, Nick has two alter-egos: Francois and Carlotta. Although Francois makes numerous awkward appearances in the film, Carlotta shows up only near the end and the explanation for her arrival is muddled. Director Michael Arteta's determination of how to present Francois - as a distinctly separate individual from Nick - has its drawbacks. Not only does it marginalize Nick as a character but there are instances when it simply doesn't work. There's nothing new about having an aspect of an individual represented as a hallucination (Battlestar Galactica did this all the time, and Fight Club employed it to stupendous effect) but it is not handled seamlessly here. Francois' appearances and disappearances are not well motivated; in fact, they often seem arbitrary.

It has been argued that playing both Nick and Francois offered Michael Cera the opportunity to show his range. Nick is Cera in his usual low-key, likeable loser mode - a variation on the theme he employed for Superbad, Juno, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Francois is Cera trying to put a cocky spin on this image and not really succeeding. Francois is nothing more than a pale imitation of a juvenile delinquent. Maybe Cera has become so typecast as a nice nerd that this is as far as a director will let him go.

As a teen rom-com, Youth in Revolt works, although the fact that the movie has largely reduced the story to this level may disturb those who love the books. Newcomer Portia Doubleday has the requisite skills to play the bubbly, smart Sheeni. Her scenes with Cera, especially early in the film, generate the right amount of chemistry. There's some ambiguity in their relationship during the midsection (when Nick comes to visit her at boarding school, he brings her dog along, and she's more delighted to see the animal than Nick) and the ending not only defies logic but feels forced and unnatural. Still, the movie makes it clear that the romance between these two is what we're supposed to be invested in, so a different conclusion might have been less satisfying.

The film is peppered with oddball characters that seem a little less odd than we suspect they should be. It would have been interesting to see David Lynch's take on these individuals. There's Nick's divorced mother (Jean Smart), who stumbles from one bad relationship to another, and his father (Steve Buscemi), who's living with a woman half his age. There's the next-door neighbor (Fred Willard) who hides illegal immigrants in his basement. Sheeni's mother (Mary Kay Place) and father (M. Emmett Walsh) are religious fanatics, but her brother (Justin Long) is a mushroom eating stoner. Ray Liotta has a small part in a role with which he is intimately familiar - a bad cop.

One senses that the unachieved intention behind Youth in Revolt was to craft a hip, darkly comedic love story - something that takes us to a familiar place by a new road. Unfortunately, a lot of the quirky elements come across as pointless, the tone is disjointed, and the comedy is rarely good for more than a half-hearted chuckle (although, to be fair, there is one really funny gag - involving a car and lake - late in the film). Youth in Revolt feels tired and Cera's inability to provide a memorable Francois neuters a central conceit. Arteta's movie is a catalog of intriguing possibilities, too few of which ultimately bear fruit.

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