3 December 2009 | Chris Knipp
Losing one's virginity, with a little help from one's alter ego
'Youth in Revolt' adapts the first three volumes of C.D. Payne's six-book series about Nick Twist, a smart and, in his own opinion anyway, more-than-usually horny 14-year-old in Oakland ("a large, torpid city across from San Frandisco") who reports in daily journal form on a series of adventures encountered on the way to losing his virginity, despite the obstacles set up by his irresponsible divorced parents. Ironically, though pointed at today's young teens, 'Revolt's' R rating excludes them -- though the books are far more sexually explicit. Whether somehow this will become a cult movie via Netflix is hard to say. It's pretty faithful to the books, leaving out lots, but adding or changing little. Unfortunately Arteta's flat direction, and focus on the action aspects -- an accident, a fire, a botched fake suicide, invasion of the girls' dorm of a French-language prep school in Santa Cruz -- excises much of the self-satisfied wit of the books and Nick's one flourish, his intellectual and literary showing off. The film necessarily loses the flavor of a day-to-day-journal, though most of the characters tend to talk in the same ornate, overly-polite style as Nick's entries.
C.D. Payne is no Salinger. His books serve as page-turners for young readers, but they're nothing special. There's a curious sense of being out of time. Is this the Nineties, when the books were begun?-- or the youth of Payne himself, who was born in 1949? Nick's girlfriend Sheeni (Portia Doubleday)'s fascination with Belmondo, chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, and the existentialists, -- and the general innocence of the behavior -- would suggest earlier days, but in the movie, people have cell phones, and a prevalance of 'shrooms and blunts makes this post-Breathless (francophile Sheeni's favorite movie). The main point was to keep the incidents coming, and Payne went on with "The Further Journals" and finally the adventures of Twist's younger brother.
Young Canadian actor Michael Cera, the star of Miguel Arteta's adaptation of this movie, who's now twenty-one, was already a TV veteran before he was ten. Though he appeared in many episodes of the cable series "Arrested Development," and in retrospect we realize he played the young Chuck Barris in George Clooney's droll ramble 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' he reached a kind of nerdy, adorable mega-stardom only a couple years ago with two big hits, 'Juno' and 'Superbad,' followed by the equally charming if less seen 'Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist.'
What has Mike done with his stardom? Well, he played opposite Jack Black in Harold Ramis' slapstick (and generally panned) prehistoric comedy 'Year One' and co-starred with his now ex-girlfriend Charlene Yi in the poorly received 'Paper Heart.'
Cera has good timing and is adept at delivering lines, which makes him well suited for comedy. His limitations in other areas appear in this new outing. He's both the hero and voice-over narrator, Nick Twist and Nick's bolder and more dashing imaginary alter ego, Francois, who goads him on to bolder action. There is a certain nonchalance in the flat style. Under ideal circumstances it might seem elegant. If you could be nerdy and cool at the same time Michael Cera is it, and girls do find him cute. He rarely appears anything but relaxed. But the high-pitched voice is inexpressive. The range is from A to B, and this is highlighted by how little success Cera has in making Francois seem any different from Nick, despite a little mustache, tight pants, and a lot of cigarettes (amusingly, puffed on even while running fast through the woods, while Nick lags clumsily behind). With this new performance, Cera continues to seem enormously appealing, but for conventional starring roles, cripplingly limited. He's just too pale and bland and androgynous, and the more he's cast as a horny guy the more far-fetched that seems. Anything with him in it seems de-fanged.
Maybe it doesn't matter. You either get it or you don't, and there are plenty of young readers who insist these are "the best books ever." This is as good a time as any for some lighthearted teenage adventures. (The adaptation was co-written by Gustin Nash, the guy who did 'Charlie Bartlett,' a so-so movie about a young high school entrepreneur starring Anton Yelchin.)
'Youth in Revolt' casts some veritable cult actors, who include M. Emmett Walsh as Sheeni's born-again-Christian dad and Mary Kay Place as her mom, Steve Buscemi as Nick's dad, Ray Liotta as a cop who gets involved with his floozy mom (Jean Smart). But the presence of such memorable thespians only emphasizes how little developed their characters are. I liked relative newcomer Adhir Kalyan as Veejay, Nick's erudite school friend and fellow would-be seducer of women: he gives his lines some juice. Best of all is Justin Long, who slides into the scene as Sheeni's sly older brother. He is the only unexpected character. Long can always do a lot with a small part, and when he gets a bigger one, like in Raimi's recent old-fashioned horror movie 'Drag Me to Hell,' he can be equally appealing. And there are others, such as comedy veteran Fred Willard as an excessively good-hearted neighbor.
The director, Miguel Arteta, did annoying but memorable work with writer Mike White in 'Chuck and Buck,' and the pair made something very droll in 'The Good Girl.' One wonders if Arteta was the ideal person to do this job. He seems just to be walking through it.
The Eighties were the time of the movies that celebrated youth and its many voices, ranging from S.E. Hinton and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' to the dark Alpha Girl portraiture of 'Heathers,' and John Hughes' classics. This lacks their warmth and bite.
But I still like Cera, and as has been said by a preview audience member, "His fans will be in heaven" with this.