by Brett Parker
Youth in Revolt is strangeness for strangeness sake. It puts up a front as a coming-of-age teen comedy, but that’s just a mask for unhinged insanity. It’s as if Wes Anderson got rip-roaring drunk and wrote a teen comedy, only to sober up and grow ashamed of his booze-soaked creation. I think this film just may slightly out-weird Napoleon Dynamite.
The film stars the hopelessly meek Michael Cera as Nick Twisp, a geeky teenager whose main aspirations in life are to be a writer and lose his virginity. Nick’s sexual frustrations are heightened by the fact that his divorced father (Steve Buscemi) is shacking up with a younger hottie (Ari Graynor) while his mother is sexually smitten with a slobbish loser (Zach Galifianakis). Nick grows hopelessly weary of the creeps surrounding him until the day he meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a trailer park beauty who shares his love for literature and foreign films. Sheeni looks like an innocent teen but talks as if she’s a well-cultured sex pot. Through a series of bizarre conversations, Nick realizes he must become a trouble-making bad boy if he wishes to win Sheeni’s heart.Nick understands the obvious, however: he’s way too nice. He finds the only way he can become a bad boy is if he creates an alter ego of Tyler Durden-like proportions and use him as an avatar to act out his devilish wishes. Nick fashions himself an imaginary antihero out of Francois Dillinger (also Cera), a chain-smoking, mustache sprouting smoothie with zombie-blue eyes and a smoldering meanness. Nick allows Francois to act through him (in a vaguely touched-upon schizophrenic way), and this wily rogue sets off a chain of mayhem that catapults Nick into mind-boggling realms of danger and trouble.
The opening scenes give off the tinge of a quirky virginal awakening but these motives are skewered by the fact that we don’t find the Sheeni Saunders character to be the least bit likeable or plausible. Most awkward virgins of the silver screen typically pursue beauties of endless warmth and sweetness. The lady here is a cold, pretentious twit, over-mannered and over-calculated with not a touch of genuine humanity. The character is like a concoction from a screenwriter who’s been rejected constantly by women and never had a real girlfriend of his own. When Sheeni declares her love for Breathless, I knew I was looking at a film fetishist’s fevered dream girl and not a real person. I’m still not sure if the character is faulted by Portia Doubleday (great name, that would’ve been great in Boogie Nights). The bubbly and sexy Ari Graynor has spent her career thus far making female caricatures feel as if they’re coming from a real place; perhaps she would’ve nailed the unusual nuances of Sheeni.
By the time the second half of the film rolls around, you learn to abandon any hopes of a thoughtful meditation on adolescent romance and jump right into the deranged waters of this quirky nightmare. This abandonment of intellectual thought is really the only way to enjoy the picture. When you fine tune yourself to the film’s quirky lunacy, you find yourself relishing small moments of humor. Nick and a comrade named Vijay (a wonderful Adhir Kalyan) have a hilarious misadventure at a French boarding school that milks the most laughs out of the movie. Francois’ vile smugness bounces amusingly off of a macho cop (Ray Liotta) in a few scenes. Justin Long shows up as Sheeni’s older brother, passing on mushrooms that gets everyone around him stoned and more interesting for brief sprits of time. And I can’t remember the last time an actor could be so funny while being so incredibly impassive like Zach Galifianakis.
I guess it makes sense here that Sheeni turns out to be a fan of Breathless, for Youth in Revolt is basically a slapstick reimagining of Godard’s film, perhaps the only update any filmmaker of today has the audacity to try. This film also follows a miscalculated bad boy who tries to impress a coldly ambiguous woman with destructive acts of misplaced masculinity. The joke here is that Michael Cera is clearly not the ideal for a criminal’s id and thus looks foolish in his attempts to dance on the edge. Maybe the film is suggesting that young men of today are too shy and inadequate to recapture Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hulking front. If an actor of today tried to capture the original essence of the Michel Poiccard character, they’d either come across as a brooding caricature or a vulnerable phony. Perhaps the only way one could pull of the ideals of Breathless nowadays is with laughs. Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) certainly thinks so.
Michael Cera is becoming something of a commodity for Hollywood nowadays; his polite mannerisms and overwhelming niceness can lend instant sincerity to even the most plastic of enterprises. There’s a scene towards the end where Nick declares his love for Sheeni and finally wins her in his arms. Considering all that’s gone before, the scene is unbelievable and completely undeserved, yet Cera gives his dialogue such a heartfelt yearning that his romantic anguish doesn’t feel at all fake. He always pours his teddy bear sensibilities into every ounce of his characterizations, allowing yourself to be disarmed by his puppy-dog geek routine. He’s a one-trick pony, but his one-trick is rather impressive. I seriously ponder if Cera has much of a future in movies. Can his repressed nerd shtick last forever? Will he be able to challenge himself in more complex ways? Will this act still play convincingly when he’s a grown-up?
I’m usually suspicious of movies like Youth in Revolt: movies that are cheerfully quirky in an attempt to look way more interesting than it really is. The idea behind successful quirkiness in Cinema is that it has to feel like it comes from a real, lived-in place. The Tenenbaum Family, for example, appeared to be bizarre eccentrics, but they had very specific and very deep reasons for their behavior that came from a human place. The characters in Youth in Revolt are strange simply because it makes them look more amusing in a comedy. It sells, and it’ll probably be a big cult hit among the hipsters. I really didn’t mind the shallow mannerisms though: I laughed a little and found myself actually caring a little about Nick. The way I see it, most teen comedies are painfully unrealistic anyways, at least this one has a mad clown’s glee about it.