Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: "Youth in Revolt"

Michael Cera has become an unlikely but bonafide movie star by essentially playing the same role over and over. (Don't knock it; John Wayne lasted 40 years that way.)

In Cera's case, he's always the smart, verbose kid of ironic disposition and dubious social skills who's desperate to win the attention of a particular girl, or just one in general.

"Youth in Revolt" is a refreshing turn for him because he plays the prototypical Cera character, Nick Twisp, but also Francois Dillinger, the "supplementary persona" Nick creates to lend him the bad-boy courage he needs to land the girl of his dreams.

This comes about from Nick's accurate observation, "In movies, the good guy gets the girl. In real life, it's usually the (jerk)."

Francois looks just like Nick, though a bit older, more sallow, with a faint mustache and facial peach fuzz. He's perpetually smoking a cigarette, staring at Nick with disquieting blue eyes while suggesting he do all sorts of unpleasant and usually illegal things.

Nick is naturally so nice and meek that Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), the smart, French-loving girl he meets while staying at the Restless Axles Trailer Park in Ukiah, Calif., has to hurry along their dawdling courtship with the instruction, "Kiss me, you weenie!"

Alas, events keep conspiring to keep them apart. Soon Nick has to move back to his home in Oakland with his mom (Jean Smart) and her ignoramus boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis).

With Francois' help, Nick arranges to get thrown out of his mother's home and move in with his dad (an ill-used Steve Buscemi), whom he finds a job for in Ukiah. But then Sheeni's overly religious parents send her to a private school in Santa Cruz.

Even worse, Sheeni's longtime suitor, the poet/athlete Trent -- who's heard of but not seen -- just happens to be transferred to the same school.

The film was adapted from C.D. Payne's novel (actually, a series) by Gustin Nash and directed by Miguel Arteta, who's mostly been doing TV lately but got his start with similarly quirky indie fare like "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl."

It's funny in an urbane way, and I enjoyed the characters and spending time with them.
A few things don't quite add up. Sheeni remains something of a mystery -- she's more a collection of a traits a geekboy would imagine his perfect mate to have rather than a believable character.

The movie also has a habit of discovering and discarding interesting minor characters that we wish would stick around a little longer. There's Lefty, Nick's ostensible best friend, who's in the first couple of scenes, goes away for an hour, comes back and then disappears permanently.

Fred Willard has the beginnings of a nice turn as a kooky neighbor with a thing for helping illegal aliens, but again, by the time he turns up again we'd mostly forgotten about him.

Sheeni's brother (Justin Long) shows up just long enough to get everyone stoned and then leave. Vijay, a fellow sex-addled student at Nick's new school, accompanies him on an excursion to Sheeni's school that seems like it was lifted entirely from an '80s T&A flick.

But the good traits of "Youth in Revolt" outweigh its detractions. Francois steals every scene he's in, which is appropriate for a movie that celebrates, or at least recognizes the usefulness of, bad boys.

2.5 stars

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