Time waits for no critic. I still have to see, much less review, end-of-the-aughts releases like Up in the Air and The Lovely Bones and Nine but here it is Jan. 8 and I have to pause for a minute to consider Youth in Revolt, which opens today. Confession: I saw it about three months ago and if it weren’t for the press notes I’d be grasping at straws trying to recreate the experience, sort of like Mariah Carey recalling her work on Precious at awards-giving functions. Mitigating circumstance: Dimension Films pretty much forgot about it, too, shooting it before star Michael Cera had a playlist with Nora and leaving it in the can until the tens arrived.
Well, let’s see. Consulting the notes, “Youth in Revolt is a coming-of-age comedy that puts a fresh and outrageous stamp on a tale of adolescent obsession and rebellion.” Stop the presses: even with a stamp a coming-of-age comedy is as fresh and outrageous as a vampire movie, and a shelf-sitter of that variety (Daybreakers) is also bowing today. “Youth in Revolt is the story of Nick Twisp…”—wait, it’s coming back to me now, as I untangle this Nick from Cera’s other Nick in the nick of time. This is the movie where everyone says the name “Nick Twisp” a lot, including Nick Twisp, as if it’s the funniest thing in the world.
Sorry to report that it’s one of the funnier things in the movie. C.D. Payne’s cult books about Twisp, a horny, fumbling adolescent who adopts the more confident persona of a smooth-talking Frenchman, Francois, to connive his way out of teen angst have been Cuisinarted into a single 90-minute feature. Not having read them, I don’t know if they would have benefited from the Lord of the Rings treatment, but this feels a little skimpy. Then again, not a lot that can honestly be stamped “fresh and outrageous” happens to Nick Twisp, a Sinatra and Fellini fan clearly not cut out for high school or trailer-level living with his slatternly mom (Jean Smart) and her latest boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis)—he falls for a freer spirit, Sheeni Saunders (played by a newcomer Portia Doubleday, who almost pulls off having a Bond girl-type name), puts on an ascot and a mustache to win her over, and gets into minor-league trouble in the pursuit of amour.
I can see how this might work on the page. Neither screenwriter Gustin Nash nor director Miguel Arteta (of the fresher, more outrageous indies Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, and The Good Girl) gets how to make it gel on film, though. Aimlessly structured, the movie relies on the wit and charm of Cera, which are tangible but not bottomless in his latest trying-to-get-laid part. I kind of like him, like I kind of like Jesse Eisenberg (of the “land” movies: Adventureland, Zombieland) and the other softly, sweetly neurotic boy-men who pass for male leads these days, but they don’t give you a lot of tones. And we don’t get enough of Francois—from the trailer you might take this for a high-school Fight Club, yet Francois is more of an affectation than anything else. We get too much animation; when all else fails, the movie stops dead in its tracks for clumsy sequences that depict what’s rattling around Nick’s head, the sort of frippery that’s a sure sign that the core of the material was lost in a glut of whimsy.
Steve Buscemi, Mary Kay Place, Ray Liotta, Justin Long, and M. Emmet Walsh make fleeting appearances. I have every confidence that the year in film will pick up.