Even before the opening studio logo has come and gone, we can already hear Michael Cera grunting. Sure enough, our worst fears are soon confirmed: Director Miguel Arteta cuts to the baby-faced actor jerking it underneath the covers in a poster-bedecked suburban bedroom, signaling the promise of one more film about a bright but unpopular teenage boy who can’t get laid. But while Youth in Revolt, based on the first title in a series of bestselling young adult novels by C.D. Payne, initially hews to the frustrated lad template, the filmmakers soon spin the material out into an increasingly fantastic orientation, making the movie less about the agonies of youth than the increasingly psychotic gestures of a budding sociopath.
Actually, the film is most successful when it sticks closest to the formula, as in its early scenes when Cera’s character, long-suffering Oaklander Nick Twisp, navigates a dismal home life, the indifference of the opposite sex, and the general misunderstanding of his classmates, one of whom derides his decision to rent La Strada at a local video store with the comment, “Do you have tampons for your pussy?” In a change from most of his post-Arrested Development work, Cera is given dialogue that doesn’t seem beneath him, which, when delivered in his trademark deadpan, brings out rather than muffles the actor’s obvious intelligence. If these early scenes tend to make too much of a fetish of the character’s impeccably hip taste (Frank Sinatra on vinyl, the better known titles in the Criterion Collection), then they’re not presented simply as the cultural wallpaper of a pop-savvy filmmaker’s universe, instead shrewdly articulating the tendency of teenagers to define themselves in terms of their favorite music and films.
Decamping to the California countryside with his mother and her deadbeat boyfriend for a short escape-the-creditors holiday, Nick soon finds his fitting opposite number in Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a young woman whose comeliness is matched by her cultural literacy, even if her preferences skew a little too heavily toward the French for our hero’s taste. (You know Nick’s met his match when, in a scene that seems to be trying a little too hard, she corrects him when he claims that Tokyo Story was directed by Mizoguchi.) Nonetheless, she seems genuinely taken with the boy and, while the two never sleep together and while Sheeni claims to have a boyfriend (a 6’ 2’’ Francophile who writes “futurist percussive” poetry—don’t ask), when Nick has to head back to Oakland, the two begin plotting a reunion.
Although the film aptly suggests the ways that, for a lonely teenage boy, the first girl that shows an interest can quickly become magnified into the love of your life, the lengths that Nick goes to be with his lady give new meaning to the expression “amour fou.” The two devise a loony plot by which Sheeni finds Nick’s unemployed father a job in her town, then Nick acts out so that he gets kicked out of his mother’s house and goes to live with his old man. The only problem is that Nick’s acting out consists of driving a car into a restaurant in downtown Berkeley, sparking a 500-million-dollar fire, and causing Sheeni’s parents to ship her off to a French-language prep school to get her away from her psychotic boyfriend. No matter; goaded on by his suave and reckless alter-ego Francois (played by Cera with a mustache and cigarette), Nick arranges for a classmate to drug her with sleeping pills so she’ll be kicked out and have to return to live with her religious fanatic parents.
It’s hard to know how to take these increasingly incredible scenes. They don’t quite play as farce nor as edgy comedy and they render irrelevant the modest insights of the earlier scenes by shifting the mode so far from their vaguely realistic teenage setting that it doesn’t even feel like the same universe. Perhaps the film’s second act could be read as a critique of the romantic impulse (the dangerous depths brought out in a love-struck young man), but such an interpretation seems negated by the film’s ending, in which an earnest Cera explains that he burned down half of Berkeley and drugged his girlfriend so that they “don’t have to be alone,” the validity of which seems confirmed by the director’s decision to follow up Nick’s speech with a slow-mo kiss and the warbling strains of “My Romance.”
But even apart from the film’s vaguely insane endorsement of love at all costs, there’s the fact that much of it is simply not very funny. The single joke of Nick’s alter ego brings rapidly diminishing returns as Francois’s presence increasingly displaces the young man’s regular self from the screen. Since most of the film’s early humor revolved around Cera’s delivery of wittily awkward dialogue, this displacement pretty much seals the film’s comedic fate. So that despite the able assist of some memorable supporting characters (most notably Fred Willard as an illegal-immigrant harboring neighbor), Youth in Revolt never regains its comic tone and, in the end, devolves into little more than an unfunny apology for dangerously schizophrenic behavior.