The normal order of things in Hollywood is that there are movies stars and then there are character actors. The movie stars are (mostly) glamorous people who make careers out of playing their glamorous selves while character actors spend their time blending into their roles. There are always exceptions like Robert De Niro, who has the heart of a character actor but the profile of a movie star. Exceptions going the other way are a bit rarer but they exist, someone like Joe Pesci for example certainly gets character actor roles but he plays with a consistent persona throughout his career. I’d pose that Michael Cera is one such actor who has basically held the same “you know what you’re getting” persona, while hardly being what you’d call a movie star. Simply put, Cera is typecast and I don’t really see him ever playing anything other than a socially awkward teenager. His latest effort, Youth in Revolt, is apparently based on a book but it certainly feels like it was written to be a vehicle for Cera’s established persona.
Cera plays Nick Twisp, a good-hearted sixteen year old who is (unsurprisingly for a Cera role) awkward around women. Twisp reads a lot and tends to speak like a character from some kind of classic novel. Twisp lives with his divorced mother (Jean Smart) and her shady boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) in Oakland. After the boyfriend rips off a group of angry sailors, the family decides to lay low in an RV park called Clear Lake. While on this little vacation Twisp meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a beautiful girl who seems to be his intellectual equal and after a meet-cute Twisp feels like he has a shot at her. He has two obstacles however: another suitor named Trent Preston (Jonathan Bradford Wright) and Sheeni’s fanatical Christian parents who have decided that Twisp is some kind of heretic. Eventually Twisp needs to return to Oakland but he really wants to be in Clear Lake with Sheeni. The two hatch a plot: Sheeni will get Twisp’s biological father (Steve Buscemi) a job in clear lake and Twisp will perform destructive acts of rebellion in order to be sent to live with him. However, Twisp doesn’t exactly take naturally to rebellion so he forms an alter ego named François Dillinger to help him raise hell, and it only gets crazier from there.
I had a lot to be weary of going into this movie; it had every sign of being an obnoxious “indie” quirkfest, one of many to emerge in the wake of Wes Anderson (Nick Twisp bears more than a few similarities to Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer), and the gratuitously claymation title sequence seemed to confirm my fears. The first fifteen minutes were kind of hard to get through but as I watched I found that a lot of the movie’s quirks (with the definite exception of the animated transitions) felt a bit more natural here than they do in other similar films. This is largely because the film was so refreshingly non-formulaic in the way that the story played out. Twisp’s picaresque journey does not conform neatly to the beats of average romantic comedies, rather than simply watching a relationship play out and fall apart, we’re given a fairly strange odyssey to find rather than necessarily court the love interest.
Quirky side characters played by interesting actors like Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Adhir Kalyan, and Justin Long are introduced and function as characters for nice little chunks before disappearing right in time to not overstay their welcome. I also found the movie reasonably funny at times. I mentioned earlier that I’m getting sick of Cera, but there is definite amusement to be found in the way he plays with his established persona here. Seeing him interact with his alter ego (who isn’t really all that more intimidating than the regular ego) definitely made me giggle a handful of times.
This is not to say that I recommend the film without a handful of reservations. The movie really isn’t as smart as it thinks it is and it’s very misguided in the way it’s made. At its heart I don’t think this has anything particularly interesting to say about youthful rebellion (or anything else for that matter), and the main character is often a selfish dope without the charm to really carry a movie. That said, in an indie-scene filled with artificially “quirkified” mainstream films like (500) Days of Summer, it was nice to see these techniques applied to something that was genuinely quirky to begin with.
*** out of Four