Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Youth In Revolt

All comedic actors have an image problem at some point in their careers.  Yes, it's great that Jim Carrey can talk out of his butt, or that Adam Sandler can start a sentence very quietly and then talk real loud, but eventually, they got tired of the same shtick and branched out into more varied roles.  This usually means a dramatic role that forces audiences to look at the actor in a new light, but these new roles are usually less impressive than their earlier silly stuff.  Michael Cera, who has managed to play the same character in several comedies over the past three or four years, takes a different approach to reinventing his image in Youth in Revolt.

Cera plays the lead role of Nick Twisp, a smart, introverted sixteen year old that longs to have a woman to give him a reason to desire.  He spends his time listening to Frank Sinatra vinyl and reading classic prose, trying to imagine a plausible way to lose his virginity.  It doesn't help that his family essentially rubs their sex lives in his face.  His mother (Jean Smart) is unapologetic about her low dating standards and his father (Steve Buscemi) is dating a buxom twenty-five year old (Ari Graynor).  With nothing better to do, Nick follows his mother and her boyfriend on a short vacation to a trailer park.  There, Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a pretty girl his age that is interested in literature and vinyl, too, although with a distinct preference for all things French.  Since she lives in a trailer park, there's not much to do but see how the new kid is, and they begin to spend time together.  Sheeni enjoys flirting with Nick and teasing him about his virginity, while Nick is simply amazed that an attractive girl would ever speak to him, much less kiss him.  Sheeni dreams of living in France and likes the idea of "bad boys."  Nick is obviously not bad.  Still, he falls in love with her, does a few silly things and temporarily wins her affection.  Unfortunately, Nick's time in the trailer park is limited.  Nick professes his love to Sheeni and comes up with a plan for them to be together, permanently.  Sheeni's part is to find a job for Nick's unemployed father near the trailer park.  All Nick has to do is be a bad enough son for his mother to send him to live with his father.  Sheeni has her doubts about this plan, but Nick swears he can do it, so she tells him to be "very, very bad."  Enter Francois Dillinger, the agressive, selfish, rude, and (above all else) French alter-ego for Nick.  With the help of Francois, Nick gets to be very bad indeed.  Of course, being bad has its consequences, and earning love is not necessarily one of them.

Before I mention anything else, I have to say that I find Michael Cera in the Francois persona an absolutely hilarious concept.  Of course Michael Cera's bad side looks just like him, only with a wispy mustache and a part in his hair.  I loved that Nick and Francois shared the screen together, taking turns observing and being in control.  It's like the old Tom and Jerry cartoons, where Tom would have a mini-devil pop up on his shoulder and give him advice.  Actually, it's better because Francois smokes cigarettes and wears vaguely European clothing (white pants and no socks?).  I even liked how Francois held his cigarettes; it always looked cool, but was pretty unrealistic (is he holding it between his pinkie and ring finger?).  Most of Francois' manners and mannerisms feel completely fabricated, which is perfect for a character that was created by a well-read nerd that desperately wants to be cool.  You would think that Nick would be a less funny version of Cera's typical neurotic role, if only to give Francois room to work, but the Nick character also works well.  As far as I'm concerned, the Michael Cera content in this movie was great.

The rest of the movie works less well.  One of the main problems I have is with the language.  No, it's not particularly vulgar (although it's by no means a family comedy).  The dialogue for most of the cast is just not natural, for lack of a better description.  It sounds like the dialogue belongs in a volume of flowery prose, which I'm sure is the creative team's intent.  Unfortunately, this comes off as clunky; the script is pretty clever and is full of references that I cannot speak to (I'm not being egotistical, but that's hard to do in American cinema), but a lot of it feels lost in translation.  I get the impression that the book (which I haven't read) plays up Nick's love of literature and letters more than a film adaptation ever could, and it's too bad.  I think this would have worked better if the story was clearly being narrated by Nick throughout, like this movie was his screenplay about his love for Sheeni and he was an unreliable narrator.

The language could have been seen as a bizarre quirk if the pacing had been better.  This is only ninety minutes long, but it feels a lot longer, and I'm not sure why.  One reason could be the glut of secondary characters in this movie.  They are all colorful, but I don't know if they were all necessary to the story.  The pacing could be because the source material from author C.D. Payne was set up as a series of letters, a la Dracula.   I'm inclined to believe, though, that the pacing suffered because director Miguel Arteta did not edit the movie well.  So much of this movie is repetitive, hammering the same ideas over and over; I get it, Michael Cera is a subtle actor to a fault, but I don't need to be told that he's lonely and awkward more than once or twice to believe it.  It's like belaboring the point that Woody Allen is a neurotic Jewish New Yorker.

The rest of the film was fine.  The acting was all good, but most of the actors had only bit parts.  Cera was his typical awkward self, but I happen to really enjoy his awkwardness.  Portia Doubleday did a good job as his foil, but aside from showing a talent for deadpanning lines, it's hard to judge her talents.  It was nice to see Steve Buscemi in an indie movie again, even if it had him in a relationship with a woman far too attractive to be with him.  Still, casting Buscemi as Cera's dad is a good choice.  I liked Zach Galifianakis, and Ray Liotta in their small roles as the boyfriends of Nick's mom.  Fred Willard is always Fred Willard, but he gets some decent material here and that makes all the difference.  Justin Long has a bit part and I actually liked him, which is a first for me.  You might recognize Jonathan B. Wright from his small role in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; he doesn't get much more screen time here as Nick's largely unseen nemesis, but he could be good if given more to work with.  Adhir Kalyan was an okay choice for Vijay, but there aren't really a lot of Indian actors that can play nerdy right now.  M. Emmet Walsh is clearly too old to have fathered Sheeni, but he's still funny.  I liked Mary Kay Place fine as Sheeni's mom, but I wasn't particularly impressed with Jean Smart as Nick's mom.

Between the overwhelming amount of recognizable actors, the slow pace, and the language barrier, this film's negatives overwhelm the presence of Francois Dillinger.  For a movie with such a clear-cut purpose (be bad to win the girl), the story was surprisingly slow.  Sure, I enjoyed most of the characters, but there was rarely a unique payoff for their scenes.  I wouldn't mind if one of C.D. Payne's other Nick Twisp books was eventually made into a movie, but I would hope that the filmmakers learn from this film and deliver the sharp, quick movie these characters deserve.

No comments:

Post a Comment