January 21, 2010

Schizophrenia Made Sexy: Youth in Revolt

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Youth in Revolt wastes none of our time in establishing the internal voice of its protagonist, erudite and articulate virgin Nick Twisp, played as ingénue by the master of our time, Michael Cera. He lolls around droll suburban California, too smart for his surroundings and terribly displeased with his mother (Jean Smart) and her latest live-in POS boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). Jerry makes a poor vehicle transaction with three burly sailors (not making this up) and to escape their knot-tying wrath, the three escape to a trailer park miles away. While roaming the park and sharing his wordy thoughts, Nick runs into Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday, winner of the cool name award).

Sheeni is an angelic vision to his barely-contained sexuality, and Nick is smitten on sight. Sheeni also possesses a maddening Mona Lisa smile, and while not instantly textbook-beautiful, has a mysteriously seductive attractiveness. Doubleday does well to play her as a character any young male could instantly wet dream over while Sheeni maintains a fascination with speaking formally and admiring French philosophers that reads S-O-U-L-M-A-T-E to poor Nick. Her clear experience over him in matters of the pubescent leaves him in bumbling awkward territory where Cera is neither stranger nor welcome guest. She has another young man in her life, the perfect description of the term “prep-school douche” (no offense to any readers this indirectly addresses). Somehow, his endearing nature wins over Sheeni for the summer.

However, when the heat is off and Jerry and Nick head back to the suburbs, Nick is heartbroken. Sheeni suggests he get kicked out of his mom’s house and move in with his father, who she will engineer a position at her family’s law firm. How to kick off this ruse? Sheeni continues, enigmatically, that Nick must go bad. Bad to the bone. Cue the song (not really) as Nick’s only response is the cerebral: He invents an id-fueled alter-ego named Francois Dillinger. It’s never predictable, let me assure.

This is an actor’s picture, and many screen greats round out the cast. Ray Liotta is a tough-talking asshole cop. Justin Long shows up as Sheeni’s druggie brother. Adhir Kalyan makes the perfect sidekick. Fred Willard, M. Emmet Walsh, Steve Buscemi and Ari Graynor round out the cast.

Above all, though, Cera’s portrayal of Francois Dillinger is remarkable. At first, the audience chuckles at this round-faced attempt at a teenage Tyler Durden, complete with ridiculous moustache. Soon, the character takes over. It’s more than the contacts Cera put in to give an edge to Dillinger’s permanently fierce, soulless expression. It’s the way the character embodies himself, simultaneously nonchalant, always smoking a cigarette, monotone-yet-flippant. All the while, Dillinger seems to be restless in his skin, and his unpredictability makes one wonder if he’ll leap out of his fleshy prison at any moment. He wears the same clothes in every scene like a Wes Anderson character, and sometimes his juxtaposition with Nick Twisp in action and bantering conversation makes us wonder how much of a figment he is, and not a queerly realized psychotic tulpa of Nick’s possibly escalating insanity. Dillinger becomes an odd combination of Tyler Durden and the implausible manifestations in J-horror remakes like The Uninvited. At no point does Cera let either character become unwatchable. A one-note character actor? Perhaps in the past, and he sang that note brilliantly. Now we see Michael Cera has an expanding deck, with aces up each sleeve.

Without spoiling it too much, the overall message of the film is “Be yourself and you’ll get the girl that matters.” The cliché is avoided by the numerous turns the movie takes to get to that message, its arrival a bit of a surprise given the context. However, the running time and content work in tandem against theme. It’s a movie about creating a sociopathic alter-ego that blows shit up, steals cars, administers date-rape drugs and regularly swears while running from the law and all notions of propriety and decency, in service of manipulating and winning over a girl. That doesn’t seem contradictory? It’s the Dirty Harry approach to dating. It’s one thing to tell the audience Nick Twisp is a sissy that achieves success through assertiveness of his own characteristics. But Nick Twisp is NOT being himself. He is being Francois Dillinger.

There remains an undercurrent to the viewing of the movie, a feeling like something is missing, but it’s difficult to imagine what more can be gleaned, what more desired. The actors, direction and plot do their part in satisfying and surpassing expectations. Even director Miguel Arteta can be forgiven the slight indie touches, as the lapses into Clay-Mation and the cartoon depictions of Kama Sutra are woven into the whole. And it would be remiss to give a movie lower marks when the negative criticism just can’t be articulated.

Original Author: Naushad Kabir