I’d better confess right up front that I still haven’t read a single one of the books in C.D. Payne’s popular six-novel series, known collectively as “The Journals of Nick Twisp.” But with the very best of intentions I bought “Youth in Revolt,” the first, just recently.
This was after seeing the movie. So of course I only could find the movie-tie-in edition of the novel, which makes me not just the illiterate wanker who didn’t know to read a book until its movie came out, but also the guy in his 30s sheepishly toting around a paperback with a big picture of Michael Cera on the cover. That seems a little wrong in any context, and I just think it’s something you should know going in to my assessment of “Youth in Revolt” the film.
My assessment is that the film is not extraordinary, but it is a good time. As adapted by Gustin Nash (”Charlie Bartlett”) and directed by Miguel Arteta (”Chuck & Buck”), “Youth in Revolt” seems at once an old-fashioned picaresque, in which a teenager’s intense summer-vacation romance drives him to episodic rascality, and the faddish epitome of perk-n-quirk packaging, whose animated interludes and indie-pop soundtrack call to mind the Cera-intensive “Paper Heart” and “Juno.” So it’s likely to be a magnet for moviegoers, attractive or repulsive depending on your own polarity.
Another thing I’d better confess is that I like Cera. His Nick Twisp in particular — a cerebral, self-involved, hormone-addled outcast capable of refined cultural tastes and intense romantic fixations — is a movie role model I wish I’d had when I was younger (see also recent Jesse Eisenberg, early Jason Schwartzman). Technically Cera’s too old for this part, but we (or at least I) give him a pass because he’s him.
Having endured the break-up of his frivolously trashy parents (Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi), and their subsequent, variously abhorrent recouplings (involving Zach Galifianakis, Ari Graynor, Ray Liotta), young Nick feels angsty and sexually bereft. Through an auspicious getaway from his suburban Bay Area home to a backwoods trailer park, he meets an alluringly sphinxlike siren named Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), who shares his pretentious interests and goads his ardor.
“I have decided to create a supplementary persona named Francois Dillinger,” he’s telling us in a voiceover before long. “Bold, contemptuous of authority, and irresistible to women.” This havoc-wreaking alter ego, played also by Cera but now in shades and loafers and a pencil mustache, becomes a droll parody of familiar adolescent cynicism.
Cars get stolen and smashed, drugs consumed, genders bent. People get hurt, Justin Long gets baked, Fred Willard gets naked. And Sheeni’s Bible-thumper parents (Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh) get very offended.
It’s odd and fun watching Cera dip into this peculiar range of voguish deadpan profanity. Galifianakis has paved a way into the territory for us, but his presence can be distancing. Cera, on the other hand, seems like a confidante. How charmingly he delineates the character’s urge to be so worldly and adult-like, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that most adults are uncivilized schnooks.
Of course it raises the fear that he’ll just keep doing a Michael Cera routine until one day suddenly he has turned undeniably old, and all that nonthreatening asexual innocence somehow has become a horror of bitter schmaltz and lechery. But not yet. So far we’re OK. “Youth in Revolt” gives us another angle on Cera’s blithe timidity. It allows him to play the straight man to himself. So maybe the real reason that a filmed version of the book never quite happened before (small-screen tries were made for Fox in 1996 and for MTV in 1998) is that it was waiting for now, and for him.
And maybe it’s just fine if movies made from books have a way of bullying us into finally reading the books. If this “Youth” has taught me anything, it’s that I’ll get to my Payne eventually.