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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Michael Cera is an actor who has carved out a niche in films these past few years, and may end up to be indicative of the era for his portrayals of ectomorphic, sensitive, virginal young men. He is so tied to this image that when he plays something different--his Scott Pilgrim is nothing like his sensitive lad of Superbad--that everyone seems to think they'rItalice one and the same. A screening of his films could sum up the first decade of the 2000s.

And that includes Youth in Revolt, the film from earlier this year that didn't do much at the box office, but is a cheery, wickedly irreverent souffle of a film that has Cera at his most ectomorphic (he appears in not one, but two scenes in just his boxers), sensitive (his character loves Frank Sinatra and classic European films) and virginal (no explanation necessary).

He plays Nick Twisp, a perfect name for the Cera persona, an overly intelligent teenager who lives with his single mom, a harried woman in a relationship with the dubious Zack Galifinakis. Cera, in his arch voice, crafted no doubt from too much reading and not enough time spent playing outdoors, asks her if this is just puppy love. When Galifinakis needs to flee town after fleecing some sailors on a used car, the family decamps to a trailer park in northern California, where Cera meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). It is love at first sight.

Doubleday, a wise-beyond-her-years girl who enjoys toying with Cera's affections, turns out to be something other than I expected. She has a perfect boyfriend (wisely, director Miguel Arteta withholds him until the end of the film, when he matches our expectations), and I thought the film would play out with Cera pursuing her. Instead, she succumbs to Cera's charms almost immediately. This is perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment to nerds everywhere, but I didn't mind it, and could almost believe that she was so eager to leave behind the oppression of her uber-Christian parents that she found Cera's moony awkwardness appealing.

Cera is enlisted to try and get kicked out of his house so he can move permanently to Doubleday's town, and to do this he creates an alter-ego, Francois Dillinger, a chain-smoking sophisticate with a David Niven moustache and a disregard for social convention. Guided by his id, Cera manages to start a fire in downtown Berkeley, and then uses Francois' influence to seduce Doubleday, using such lines as "I want to wrap your legs around your head and wear you like the crown you are," and "I want to tickle your bellybutton from the inside." I doubt these lines would work on any sentient woman anywhere, but it's nice to think that they would.

Of course, Cera will eventually rebel against Francois, much as Woody Allen, mentored by the spirit of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, ultimately finds that he is capable of winning the girl by being himself. There's more than a little Allen in the script, by Gustin Nash, which has erudite dialogue (though too much voice-over, betraying its novel origins). The busy and colorful direction by Arteta masks that the characters are little more than cartoons--a few animated scenes drive this point home--but a few supporting characters were pretty interesting. I liked Cera's friend, the British-accented Adhir Kalyan. When he hears about Doubleday's prep-school roommate, who is promiscuous, he is immediately smitten, sight unseen. This seems just about right.

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