I wrote about the similarities that exist between most of Michael Cera’s previous roles, and his more recent desire to try something different, in my review for the comedy Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist a few weeks ago. As such I won’t repeat the same points in this review, and will simply say that he plays another variation on the character of ‘gawky, introverted and intelligent teenager looking to shed his virginity’ inYouth In Revolt, and that once again he successfully pulls it off. (Literally in the first scene.) While Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a dud with very few laughs, this is a more suitable vehicle for Cera to show off his comic talents; it’s certainly not the greatest contribution ever made to the teen rom-com genre, but it does at least contain some funny moments and a series of eye-catching cameos, if you happen to like that kind of thing.
Cera plays Nick Twisp, a young and reasonably intelligent man from Oakland, California, who takes himself extremely seriously and wishes to experience both love and lovemaking for the first time. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother Estelle (Jean Smart), who is dating younger trucker Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). The three leave town temporarily when a bunch of sailors threaten Jerry over an outstanding debt, and head for a trailer park in Clearlake. Here Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a kindred spirit and committed Francophile who entrances our hero after engaging him in a little cultural one-upmanship. Smitten for the first time, Nick manages to woo Sheeni despite much talk of her boyfriend Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright) and the presence of her religious, watchful parents (Mary Kay Place and M. Emmett Walsh), but must ultimately return to Oakland with his mother and Jerry.
Pining for his new love, Nick concocts an elaborate plan to move nearer to her, first of all securing a new job for his father George (Steve Buscemi) near Sheeni’s family. In order to keep Sheeni interested, and partly to force his mother into kicking him out of the house, Nick develops a louche chain-smoking alter-ego called François Dillinger (also played by Cera), a blue-eyed Gallic rebel with Tom Ripley’s wardrobe and Serge Gainsbourg’s attitude. Egged on by François, Nick goes on a mini rampage of sorts, gets kicked out of the house by his mother, and visits Sheeni at boarding school. He eventually gets the move he’s been angling for, but suggestions made by François continue to land him in hot water afterwards.
While it’s all fairly straightforward, and the usual teen comedy high jinks and chatter about reproductive organs and losing virginity will have many people rolling their eyes, Gustin Nash’s screenplay is occasionally sharp and the source novel, by C.D. Payne, is well thought of. As such, when the same old drug-related gags you’ve seen and heard many times before appear (primarily thanks to Sheeni’s older brother Paul (Justin Long)), they’re actually not too bad at all, though they are helped considerably by the presence of the ever-excellent Fred Willard as well-meaning neighbor Mr. Ferguson. (Conservative parents taking magic mushrooms? Imagine the consequences.) The dick jokes? Not even so-so, unfortunately.
Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) banks on the Nick / François hook working, and although it’s quite good fun watching Cera play an unlikeable, arrogant arsehole, the idea isn’t developed very well past the initial stage and eventually it seems superfluous. To maintain a bit of forward thrust as the quest for Sheeni sags a little one or two minor characters are introduced halfway through, such as Nick’s new friend Vijay (Adhir Kalyan) and Sheeni’s sex-mad roommate Taggarty (Rooney Mara), but they are unceremoniously ditched shortly thereafter as the plot moves towards a climax of sorts. Perhaps there should have been more focus on the characters that really matter to the story; for example Nick’s preppy, irritatingly smug love rival Trent only appears within the last 20 minutes, which feels like a missed opportunity.
I doubt that Galifianakis could ever make me laugh, even if he spent a thousand years trying, but a couple of the other cameos are enjoyable. The way Jerry is rapidly replaced as the object of Estelle’s desire is quite funny – if a little clunky – and his unpleasant cop successor Lance (an amusing straight-faced turn by Ray Liotta) is someone I’d have liked to have seen more of. Buscemi only has a handful of scenes and reverts to type as the downbeat, moaning Twisp Sr, but his blackly-comic brand of anger-on-the-verge-of-exasperation is always welcome, and as mentioned earlier Willard improves any comedy film he appears in.
George – like Estelle – has also opted for a younger partner, named Lacey (played by Ari Graynor). While Galifianakis is expected to deliver a few laughs in the role of unsuitable toyboy, Graynor’s character seems to be there for one reason only: to show off the actor’s legs. Oddly, despite the introduction of such a character, the obvious link between Lacey’s appearance and Nick’s desperate desire to get laid isn’t really made, which is quite a relief.
Despite the personification of Nick’s id offering the promise of something slightly unusual, Youth In Revolt is a formulaic comedy, but at least it’s a likeable one. That’s partly due to Cera, as his delivery and comic timing are both sure, although he’s certainly aided by the fact the script contains a few genuinely funny moments. (That always helps, of course; half-a-dozen more and Arteta and everyone else involved would really be onto something.) It’s a shame that those fleeting flashes of excellence are surrounded by several weaker jokes, although if you find yourself laughing instead of yawning at the film’s repeated stereotyping of the French, then you will probably find it funnier than I did.
An offbeat atmosphere is successfully achieved, but the indie-cred cameos ensure that it all seems a little self-consciously quirky at times, and that’s increased by the occasional animated flight-of-fancy segment: fun, but ultimately pointless. Still, there are certainly worse comedies out there, and if that sounds like faint praise … I’m afraid faint praise is all I have.
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
Written by: Gustin Nash, CD Payne
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Zach Galifianakis, Fred Willard
Running Time: 89 minutes