Mark Reviews Movies

YOUTH IN REVOLT

1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Miguel Arteta

Cast: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Erik Knudsen, Adhir Kalyan, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Justin Long, Jonathan B. Wright, Mary Kay Place, M. Emmet Walsh

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, language and drug use)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 1/8/10


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 14, 2010

It is a commonly held standard that the death knell for comedy is trying to be funny. I argue that the problem with Youth in Revolt is that it tries hard not to be funny. I suppose the lesson is that trying as a practice is comic ruin.

Take a scene in which our timid, virginal adolescent hero Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) takes a spanking from the belt of his mother's new boyfriend. The content of the scene, a pretty viscous display of "parental" corporal punishment, isn't funny on the surface. The joke is that Nick has enlisted the aid of a manufactured alter ego named "Francois Dillinger" to become rebellious in the harder parts of his life, including this. As Nick's inner monologue rambles on, the mustachioed, cigarette-smoking "Francois" takes the beating with apathy. "You all done," he boringly questions during a break from the pelting.

The joke here, I suppose, is also the basis of Nick's new outlook on life, which is one of complete detachment. Whether or not this is a new choice of Nick is questionable, as we see his life before creating "Francois" as one always from the outside looking in (judging his mom's previous boyfriend, telling us the ways he's unique from his peers, noticing he has a friend more pathetic than himself, and stating that he's a virgin and doesn't want to be—in other words, not feeling much). Still, he knows what he wants and doesn't think he has the qualities to obtain it.

Hence, he imagines himself as "Francois." Director Miguel Arteta seems to have taken this persona, as underdeveloped and underused as it is, to inform the tone of the movie. It is detached from whatever world in which it is set and whatever characters inhabit it.

Nick sees a potential answer to his predicament, as a boy his age usually does, in the girl next door Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). Sheeni is pretty and worldly, talking with Nick about music and cinema in ways he never imagined with someone his age (She corrects him on the director of Tokyo Story, unlike a classmate who jokes about tampons coming with a copy of La Strada).

Of course with these traits, Nick doesn't think he's in her league. She wants, he presumes, a more rebellious type of guy—a prick, which is the kind of guy he believes all women want over a nice guy like him. "Francois," the name of the man she imagines she will one day marry, is that kind of guy, and Nick needs him to help get kicked out of mom's house and live with his dad (Steve Buscemi), who has recently moved into the trailer park where Sheeni resides.

Getting chucked from mom's home isn't as easy as talking back, and so "Francois" comes up with a plan that results in a massive explosion and an arson investigation against Nick.

There are a lot of cards at play here, and Gustin Nash's script (based on a novel by C.D. Payne) doesn't keep track of them well. Nash introduces lots of side-players, including Buscemi, Jean Smart as the mom, Zach Galifianakis as her first boyfriend, Ray Liotta as her second, Fred Willard as a hippie neighbor, M. Emmet Walsh as Sheeni's father, and Justin Long as her brother. That's a lot of characters, played by some genuinely, uniquely talented actors, and so much potential. It's mostly wasted, as these characters pop in and out at a moment's notice without much behind them.

Similarly, while the "Francois" personality gives Cera an opportunity to break away from the awkward, teenaged persona he has gotten down to a science, that aspect of the story takes as much of a backseat as the rest of the gallery of supporting characters.

The jokes roll, mainly from Nick's older-than-his-years voiceover, but the tone of the movie is apathetic. There are moments of pure silliness, like the results of a sleepover at Sheeni's French boarding school and a pair of scenes of groups of people on hallucinogens (with one of the movie's genuinely funny moments, involving a Chekhov's Pipe Organ (set up early, not for the plot but for the gag)), but Arteta even keeps these low-key.

All of these shortcomings highlight the attitude of Youth in Revolt. The only way to describe it is that it's trying to be too cool to be funny.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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