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Review: 'Youth in Revolt'

Michael Cera’s modest lead character makes the film work

Posted: January 7, 2010 4:32 p.m.
Updated: January 8, 2010 6:00 a.m.

Michael Cera, left, and Portia Doubleday are shown in a scene from, "Youth in Revolt." Cera gets to play two characters in the movie, which opens this week.

 
Michael Cera is not a sissy. It's more like he's unusually ... diffident. Laid back to a point approaching the horizontal. Yet he yearns. He's so filled with desire it slops over. I speak not of the real Cera, unknown to me, but of the persona he has perfected in such movies as "Superbad," "Juno," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" and "Paper Heart."

That was the comedy that pretended to be a documentary about his romance with Charlyne Yi, which was also going on in real life. That made for some ambivalent scenes, particularly since Ms. Yi herself is laid back so far the two could star in a movie based on "Flatland."

"Youth in Revolt" gives Cera the twee name Nick Twisp, surrounds his aging virgin act with divorced parents who are both shacked up with lustful vulgarians, and then provides him with a dream come true in the person of Sheeni Saunders. She's played by Portia Doubleday, a new actress whose name will always be more melodious than those of her characters. They meet during family vacations at the sublimely named Restless Axles trailer park. For Sheeni, who speaks as if influenced by Juno, virginity is a once-touching affectation, and Nick Twisp is oh, so eager to join her in this opinion. But there are many obstacles to their bliss, worst of all his family's tragic return home.

His family: His mother, Estelle (Jean Smart), lives with Jerry (Zach Galifianakis), a beer-swilling, belching lout who makes Nick's skin crawl. His father, George Twisp (Steve Buscemi), recently laid off, has robbed the cradle for his live-in, Lacey (Ari Graynor). Both parents all but flaunt their lovers before poor Nick; at Restless Axles, his mom asks Nick to clean up after dinner while she and Jerry (after his post-prandial burp) retire to the bedroom a few feet away for noisy rumpy-pumpy.

Sheeni's parents have much less screen time, so they're cast to make an immediate impression. Try to image M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place as your parents. OK. Nick is desperate to be reunited with Sheeni, tries to float reasons he needs to take a trip right way, and really inadvertently (honest) sets in motion an explosive, fiery chain of events.

Cera's style lends itself to one note, and the movie wisely gives him another character to play, an imaginary alter ego named Francois Dillinger, inspired by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Of course Nick would know who Belmondo is. I'd believe him if he were inspired by Jean Gabin. In this role, he has a mustache and smokes, but true to character, his mustache is wispy and he always smokes like it's his first cigarette.

It's often observed that comedy never works if an actor signals that he's just said something funny. I don't know if Michael Cera CAN do that. It requires such bold assertion. You'd get suicidal trying to get him to laugh at a joke. This passiveness is why he's funnier than Jack Black, for example, in their movie "Year One." One of the secrets of "Youth in Revolt" is that Nick Twisp seems bewildered by his own desires and strategies. He knows how he feels, he knows what he wants, but he'd need a map to get from A to B. It's Nick's self-abashing modesty that makes the movie work. Here, you feel, is a movie character who would find more peace on the radio.

© 2009 THE EBERT CO.

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