Friday, January 8, 2010

He Gives Love a Bad Name: YOUTH IN REVOLT

The amount of enjoyment you get out of director Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt, based on the cult novel by C.D. Payne, may hinge on how tired you are of Michael Cera. After all, this is yet another one of his stammering-teen performances like the ones he’s given in Arrested Development, Superbad, Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Year One. There are, however, slight variations in his screen persona from character to character, and I, for one, am not yet tired of his way of delivering jokes by sometimes shyly slipping lines past or throwing lines away, muttering them under his breath, and then other times, asserting lines with painfully earnest intent but deeply strange delivery. I still have to smile when I think of Paulie Bleaker telling Juno that she’d “be the meanest wife ever.” He’s funny precisely because he doesn’t seem to be.

In Youth in Revolt, Cera is given yet another funny character in Nick Twisp, a mopey teen who lives with his mom (Jean Smart) and her live-in boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis). He’s repulsed by them, but an escape to see his dad (Steve Buscemi) and his dad’s much-younger girlfriend (Ari Graynor) doesn’t do much to relieve his constant state of self-pity. He’s surrounded by people in love, or something like it, and yet is cursed to remain vaguely lovesick. That is, at least until that vagueness is sharpened and focused on one girl he meets over the summer while vacationing in a trailer park. That girl is Sheeni Saunders, a cute and funny young woman whose capacity for affected anomie matches only Twisp’s. Saunders is played by relative newcomer Portia Doubleday, a great find and a fine match for Cera. They make a relaxed and cutesy couple. Doubleday shares with Cera a sly way of delivering punchlines without seeming to realize how funny she is.

After leaving the trailer park containing his mother’s boyfriend’s summer home, Twisp creates what he calls a “supplementary persona” in the form of the mustache-wearing, cigarette-smoking, bad boy Francois Dillinger. A revoltingly suave youth, Dillinger will occasionally appear and give Twisp very bad advice. Of course, he’s only in Twisp’s mind, but he gives him the courage to act (sort of) wild in an attempt to be sent away to be closer to Sheeni. He takes to spitting, tipping bowls of cereal, and, naturally, starting a massive fire. Cera has fun with this dual role; if he’s mostly unconvincing - he is - I suppose that could be the mildly clever point.

It’s a good thing that most of the humor arises out of the chemistry between Cera and Doubleday (and between Cera and Cera), though, because the movie feels awfully raggedy. Good performers like Fred Willard, Ray Liotta and Justin Long (in addition to Smart, Galifianakis, and Buscemi) are tragically underused in extremely underdeveloped supporting roles. Subplots start nowhere and then never get going while the plot itself starts strong, hitting a few funny notes, and then consists of nothing more than slight, and slightly worse, variations on those same few notes. It’s lumpy and episodic with a snarky tone that gets wearying, especially when it asks us to care more deeply about its characters. That said, this is a gently crude, yet still hard-R, teen comedy that’s kind of enjoyable, in a scrappy sort of way. Cera and Doubleday make it worthwhile.

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