Apparently, the new teen sex comedy/social satire Youth in Revolt is derived from a series of novels that everybody but me has read (or, at a minimum, heard of before seeing author C.D. Payne named in the opening credits). And I can safely judge from the general tone of reviews that everybody but me has written, that these facts are true: to read the books is necessarily to love the books; to love the books is to find the movie certainly, but perhaps indefinitely, lacking. Maybe I'm a damned prodigy or summat, because I was able to find the movie lacking without having to be familiar with the books at all. Maybe I'm just sick and tired of these ridiculously twee post-Wes Anderson indie comedies, and especially the ones starring Michael Cera, who just three years ago was one of my favorite young actors in the whole world, until it became incredibly, offensively obvious that he only ever wanted to appear as one and only one kind of character for the rest of his career, but this is not the place for me to vent my frustrations about how that little shit was all ready to sacrifice the Arrested Development feature on account of worrying that Mitch Hurwitz wouldn't be able to bring in a screenplay at the artistic level of e.g. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.
At any rate, Cera isn't actually the problem with Youth in Revolt: though he may only play just the one character, he plays the character well, and if a screenwriter has put in that character, a movie can do no better than to snag Cera. So on the film's own terms, he's actually a boon to the project. On the film's own terms, it's also a stunningly lazy, smarmy comedy with very few honest laughs, and a schematic narrative that hits all of the expected notes with mechanic efficiency, and not a trace of inspiration. I say "smarmy"; but "smug" might be even better, for not since Away We Go have I seen a movie so tremendously eager to privilege its main characters by asserting its moral superiority over everybody else in the cast. Do you like to laugh at religious people? Trailer parks? Religious people who live in trailer parks? Lonely adults who long for any brief spark of human connection and so form terrible sexual attachments to scummy people? Then you are going to laugh your damn ass off at Youth in Revolt.
Cera plays Nick Twisp, a monumentally strait-laced, sex-obsessed 16-year-old living in Oakland with his mother (Jean Smart) and her apocalyptically horrible boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). It happens one day that Jerry gets on the wrong side of three very nasty sailors, and the three flee to northern California to hide out in a trailer park, where Nick meets the lovely Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a hipster girl with a penchant for Frenchmen and bad boys who nevertheless falls for Nick's earnest nerdiness pretty much instantly, despite having a statuesque blond boyfriend named Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright). Their little fling can only last for a few days before Nick, with his virginity intact, is shipped back to Oakland, but now with a plan in mind: if he can act like enough of an asshole, his mother will send him to live with his father (Steve Buscemi), living in the same town as the Saunders's trailer. So Nick invents a rebellious alter-ego, François Dillinger, to guide him in the ways of bad teendom, and in no time at all has enough of a rap sheet that he's on the run from the law. It also turns out that a little bit of wickedness has given Nick the taste for it, and so his continued attempts to prove his worth to Sheeni and finally become somebody that he can like is largely a matter of continued anti-social behavior.
The film's 90-minute running time is quite over-stuffed, and I'll say this: I'd rather have my teen sex comedies with too many ideas than no ideas at all, like, say, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (I also have no problem believing that this material works infinitely better in its original three-volume form, where it isn't so wretchedly compacted and rushed). But a surfeit of ideas is not at all the same as a surfeit of ideas that all work, nor a surfeit of ideas that all work in concert. Instead, Youth in Revolt rattles from plot point to plot point with frightful abandon, hanging on to coherence by only the slenderest of margins. Much of what happens is done so quickly and with so little forethought, either by the characters or by the filmmakers, that it all starts to feel arbitrary.
That's farce for you, though, and if the film were actually funny, all this would be forgiven. Unfortunately, Youth in Revolt mines so many of its jokes from sheer hipster egotism that it's rather more sour than amusing - humor is subjective, of course, but the audience I saw it with didn't seem any more inclined towards laughter than I did. Admittedly, some of it is genuinely funny, particularly in the second half (there's precious little that works at all until after he leaves his mother's home: the misanthropy up to that point is far too pointlessly mean-spirited for my tastes to allow any trace of wit). And say whatever else one wants to about the actor's shortcomings, Cera has a way with line delivery that has always served him well and continues to serve him. So I guess I mean to say that the film could be a lot worse, and that's nothing to sniff at in January.
Outside of Cera's unforced neuroticism, though, there's really not a damn thing in the movie that clicks on any kind of vaguely human level, or holds even the smallest sort of appeal. The only other character given any kind of depth in Gustin Nash's screenplay is Sheeni, and Doubleday gives a simply awful performance that makes that character seem robotic and unnatural, rather than charismatic or lovable in the slightest. Even Justin Long - in a walk, the smarmiest actor we have today - is a more likable onscreen presence in his extended cameo. Other than the two leads, though, everyone in the film is the kind of shallow caricature based in self-superiority and a heinous lack of observation (for caricatures based on close observation can indeed work, as is constantly attested to by the work of the Coen brothers), far too miserable to be funny.
Miguel Arteta directs all of this with no particular amount of energy or distinction, keeping stylistic flourishes to an absolute minimum, perhaps operating in the faith that the material is too strong to need a pushy authorial hand; just about the only personality he ever betrays (and it might very well not even be his doing) lies in the film's soundtrack, which is not quite so cloyingly indie as in many films of this type, and in at least one scene is quite well-chosen; though if there's one trope that Wes Anderson has left us with that I can't stand, it's when pop music does all the work of the storytelling.
But that's missing the point, maybe: because Youth in Revolt is nothing but a program-filling product, just another release driven by the marketing group it belongs to and not by anything urgent or artistic. That's what the soundtrack tells me, the misleading ads, and even Cera's presence: come see our movie - it won't surprise you in the least, but who goes to movies expecting insight or surprise, anyway?