With Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday. Rated R for sexual content, language and drug use. 90 minutes.
January can be a great time for moviegoers and a terrible time for movie critics. It’s when some late Oscar contenders, having opened in New York and Los Angeles for qualification runs, get wider releases. It’s also a time when Hollywood clears the shelves of film projects that didn’t quite pan out or which seem very risky at the box office. YOUTH IN REVOLT is not a late arrival. It is one of the first releases of 2010.
Although occasionally a good film sneaks through because the studios don’t know what they’ve got, such is not the case here. Instead we have a teen romantic comedy in which schizophrenia is considered the hilarious twist. Of course they don’t call it that, so instead of being a story of a young man listening to the voices in his head and going out of control, it’s supposed to be a wacky romantic comedy.
Michael Cera, in the sort of role in which he seems to be alternating with Jesse Eisenberg, plays Nick Twisp, a horny teenager who isn’t getting any. His parents are divorced, and his mother has taken up with a series of inappropriate men. Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) who is beautiful and smart and seems taken by him. Nervous as to how to win her, he turns to his suave alter ego François Dillinger (also Cera, now with an absurd mustache) who proceeds to give him terrible, destructive advice.
In the course of the movie he will steal and wreck cars, commit arson, fake a suicide, and lie to a troubled girl to inspire her to break up Sheeni’s current relationship. Apparently, some people find this “charming” and “funny.” Yet as Nick gets so out of control that the authorities have to be called in, it ought to be obvious these aren’t light-hearted pranks, but criminal conduct. The excuse for Nick is that François has been advising him how to be cool. In courtrooms this is known as the “insanity defense.”
Based on a series of novels by C. D. Payne, something seems to have gotten lost in the translation. What apparently was absurd and comically exaggerated on the page lands with a thud on the screen. Sheeni’s parents (M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place) are supposed to be funny because, get this, they’re Christians. Nick’s mom (Jean Smart) takes up with an out-of-control cop (Ray Liotta). Sheeni’s intelligence is exhibited by a love of 1950’s French writers, movies and singers. Even the reliable Fred Willard, as a kindly neighbor, is reduced to “acting stoned” jokes.
Cera has fit in well in other recent films about teens fumbling with sex, such as “Juno” and “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” but as is apparent here, his likeability quotient can only take him so far. Portia Doubleday’s Sheeni is pert, but a little too sophisticated given her character’s supposed background.
For teens and twenty-somethings prepared to laugh at anything Michael Cera is in, “Youth In Revolt” may do. However, in keeping with its January release date, it is revolting.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.