Youth in Revolt
Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Mary Kay Place, Justin Long, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi
(Dimension Films; US theatrical: 8 Jan 2010 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 8 Jan 2010 (General release); 2010)
Call it “the Diablo Cody Effect” or the final sortie of faux hipster chic. Whatever it is, this desire to have every character in a film speak like they swallowed an urban thesaurus, slick quips and overly written bon mots as a substitution for insight and wit has reaching a breaking point. Granted, when done correctly (Juno, (500) Days of Summer) it can reverberate with a power few flatly written screenplays can manage. But when obvious and apparent, as in the latest film from Superbad‘s Michael Cera, Youth in Revolt, it tends to take away from everything else onscreen.
Based on the epistolary novel by C. D. Payne, the story of Nick Twisp and his sad sexual desperation is proffered as a pointed coming of age, a highly literate look at post-modern adolescent filtered through one too many viewings of Kevin Smith’s oeuvre. In the hands of Chuck and Buck director Miguel Arteta and a script from Charlie Bartlett scribe Gustin Nash, the book has been boiled down to some strangely superficial basics: Nick is now 16, and follows the original premise of the tome - upon meeting dream girl Sheeni Saunders, his life is turned upside down. However, almost everything else about the plot is “inspired by” the source, missing much of what made Payne’s work so memorable.
Still, Youth in Revolt has its moments. What it doesn’t have is an overall cohesiveness or consistency of tone. The main plot finds Nick (Cera) on the run with his mom (Jean Smart) and her latest middle-aged fling (Zach Galifianakis) vacationing at a Christian trailer park. There, our horndog hero hooks up with Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) for a nice little romance. When he has to return home, the couple comes up with a plan.
Sheeni will get Nick’s deadbeat Dad (Steve Buscemi) a job in her city. Then he will find a way to get in trouble with his Mom and sent to live with his father. Thus begins a series of misadventures, culminating in Nick developing a bad boy alter ego to do the majority of his devious dirty work. Along the way, there are stop-offs at a snooty French boarding school, an animated Joy of Sex like run-in with magic mushrooms, a lot of penis humor, and just a smattering of contemporary teen insight.
At this point, Youth in Revolt has all it needs to succeed. It has a winning cast (including additional oddball turns from M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place as Shenni’s ultra-religious parents, Justin Long as her dithering druggie older brother, and Fred Willard as an ex-hippie activist type who befriends Nick), a tried and true motion picture premise, and enough eccentricity to separate it from the standard sex comedy. So what, exactly, is wrong here? Why is something so poised for success often bogged down by the weight of its own wasted opportunities?
Clearly, the chore of taking a huge book overloaded with characters and complications threw Nash. Gone are many of Nick’s friends, as well as a whole last act redemption and cross-dressing subplot. In its place are questionable anti-social actions meant to be madcap, but that only comes across as confused. Sure, we celebrate when Nick, via his inner badass persona François Dillinger, gives the bumbling elders around him a piece of his mind, but the joy is rather brief. When Nick takes his mother’s boyfriend’s car downtown to set it on fire, the immensity of the resulting damage does not register as humor. It’s just horrific.
Indeed, a lot of Youth in Revolt‘s problems stem from Arteta’s schizophrenic approach. One minute, the movie is indulging in goofy stop-motion animation sequences, seemingly meant to heighten the whimsy of Nick and Sheeni’s burgeoning emotions. The next, a blond bully ex-boyfriend type is kicking the spit out of our lead. Narrative threads come and go at random (check out Galifianakis’ entire cameo-like arc, for example) and there are lingering questions everywhere. For every refreshing breath of belligerence from Dillinger we get Nick mumbling asides that sound like they were ghost written by depressed Goth gals who’ve overdosed on too much Mark Leyner. Sure, these overly erudite takes make Youth in Revolt stand out among the rest of the aimless American Pie wannabes, but for a movie with dialogue so purposefully smart, there’s a lot of outright stupidity here.
Almost all of it comes from the adults, who seemingly derived the majority of their interpersonal and social skills from watching one too many low rent sitcoms. They are all archetypes - Mom is a slut, Dad is a mid-life crisis creep, their respective liaisons are dirty truckers/lusty cops, and basic blond bimbettes, respectively. Sheeni is saddled with similarly slight guardians - God fearing, Bible thumping, and in regards to her sibling, pot smoking and borderline inert. It’s as if all the passion, all the intellectualism and verve have to come from the young ones - and yet all they have to show for their sensibilities is a retro vinyl love of Frank Sinatra/Serge Gainsbourg (rather obvious, when you think about it), an appreciation for foreign film, and a vocabulary that would make Bennett Cerf envious (they’d probably get that reference as well).
Had there been an attempt to balance out the bumbling, brain damaged yuks with the otherwise geeky, baroque quips, Youth in Revolt might have worked better. Instead of being scattershot and unsure of itself, we’d get a funky fresh variation on the standard boy/girl back and forth. But since Arteta indulges the quirk instead of pulling back, because Nick and his pals all speak like extras at the Algonquin Round Table while indulging in the typical hormonally driven hullabaloo, because very little resonates as realistic or honest, the flaws threaten to undermine anything good. As it stands, Michael Cera and the rest of the cast lift Youth in Revolt beyond the cutesy pie piecemeal affectations. As a result, what could have been great is only marginally good.