Miguel Arteta's Youth in Revolt, from C.D. Payne's novel, is an entertainingly referential, dysfunctional and quirky love story among a young man, Nick Twisp, his alter ego, François Dillinger (both Michael Cera), and a girl, Sheeni Saunders (the appealing newcomer Portia Doubleday). I haven't read the novel, but it's sitting here staring at me while I write this.
Nick is sort of a boring jerk, a teenager with divorced parents (the very good Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who moons around, doesn't take much seriously and loves the idea of love. When his mom's boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) needs to leave town for a bit, Nick and his mom join him at a trailer park for a little "vacation" while they wait for some disagreements at home to pass them over.
There Nick meets Sheeni, who lives at the park with her parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place), religious fanatics who quickly take a strong (and pretty understandable) disliking to Nick. But Sheeni stays enamored, advising Nick to do whatever it takes to cause trouble to get himself kicked out of his mom's house so he can live with his dad, closer to Sheeni.
That command, taken so seriously by Nick, and added up with his newfound interest in all things Sheeni loves, leads him to create his alternate, devil-may-care, French chain-smoking alter ego, François Dillinger. This is a pretty spot-on moniker, as the film amusingly pays tribute to French New Wave films like Breathless (À bout de souffle), Shoot the Piano Player, Elevator to the Gallows and others, as well as cinematic and other retellings of the John Dillinger story.
When I saw conservative activist James O'Keefe's photos as he was released from jail in New Orleans after being caught trying to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's telephones, I felt I could not be the only one who saw O'Keefe as Nick Twisp, and wondered who his Sheeni might be. Likely answer: wealth and fame. On second thought, given the light box office for this film, I may indeed have been the only person who thought that....
But back to the film, Sheeni's direction begins Nick's life of crime, a sad and pathetic, yet still humorously portrayed spree of foibles and disasters. Mom's new boyfriend, a cop (Ray Liotta), offers to help cover up Nick's crimes while Nick goes to live with his father, but by this time Sheeni has been packed off to boarding school, incidentally, along with Nick's romantic rival. Too much more plot will get me into spoiler territory, so I'll quit with that.
Miguel Arteta has made perfect films in the past, notably Star Maps and Chuck & Buck, but this one doesn't quite get there. There's solid acting from everybody, quite funny dialogue and quite a few funny situations, but it's missing something. It probably goes to the drug well too often, for both humor and plot points, and while this is mostly funny, like I say, it might be too easy a crutch. Nevertheless, it's a treat to see Galifianakis, Smart, Liotta, Fred Willard, Justin Long, Adhir Kalyan and others playing some funny parts, and Cera and Doubleday are quite good at selling the love story.
There are some animated interludes which bring to mind the (superior overall) John Cusack movie Better Off Dead and which advance the plot at times, but they are not the greatest animation, or the greatest way to advance the plot. They're cute and not overdone.
Youth in Revolt is pretty funny and good-hearted, despite some very mean things people do to one another. It doesn't have any wrong notes, but a few very weird notes which don't necessarily add much. Cera's performance(s) alone (together?) is (are) worth the price of admission. He's a fine comedic and dramatic actor with such a bright future in the movies. He reminds me of the Woody Allen of Take the Money and Run, Play It Again, Sam or Annie Hall. You could already have a very fun Michael Cera movie festival.
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