Cera gives uneven “Youth in Revolt” nerdy heart

Unwitting rebel Nick (Michael Cera) finds his Bonnie in Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) in "Youth in Revolt."

“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.” ~~Oscar Wilde

What a pity it is that poor dead Oscar Wilde couldn’t make the premiere of “Youth in Revolt.” I’d like to think that the playwright — Overlord of the Offhand Quip — would have had a chuckle over Michael Cera’s performance as Nick Twisp, a shy virgin who discovers he can’t win his dream girl (Portia Doubleday) unless he gives free reign to his darker side. And Wilde probably would have liked François Dillinger (a pitifully mustached Cera) with his dirty mouth and calculated arrogance, too.

But which life, which character, is the authentic one? In Miguel Arteta’s low-key, sometimes too-lightly-drawn adaptation of C.D. Payne’s 1993 epistolary novel, it takes time to reason out the answer because even Nick’s dark side isn’t terribly aggressive. (Considering that Michael Cera’s playing both the angel and the demon, that’s not the shocker of the century.) “Youth in Revolt” begins with Nick’s plight: He lives with his mother Estelle (Jean Smart) and her latest squeeze, a beer-bellied boob named Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). They go at it like rabbits. Nearby lives Nick’s father George (Steve Buscemi), who’s shacked up with a Playboy centerfold wannabe Lacey (Ari Graynor) barely older than Nick. George and Lacey go at it like rabbits. The only person not having frequent sex is Nick, who’s resigned himself to a life of ‘neath-the-covers masturbation, Fellini films and Sinatra records. He’s a wise old soul. In high school speak, that means he’s a weirdo unlikely to get laid before delivering a valedictory address littered with big words his taunters missed on the SATs.

Then into his life a little light comes: Jerry and Estelle drag Nick on a vacation to Restless Axles (hee hee) trailer park and he meets Francophile Sheeni Saunders (Doubleday), beautiful as she is hyperarticulate. She’s his perfect match, but stealing her away from her 6’2″ pretentious poet boyfriend (Jonathan B. Wright) requires a boldness Nick can’t muster. François, however, is nothing if not one cocky, persuasive fellow, and soon he’s got Nick pulling all manner of wild stunts — stealing a car and trailer, breaking into Sheeni’s elite prep school — no one saw coming. Though fun to watch, Nick’s bad deeds lack connecting threads, making them seem disjointed, more like haphazardly thrown-in episodes than part of the film. (Question: Is crashing a car really that revolutionary?) Arteta can’t find a way to marry Nick’s two worlds cohesively, and “Youth in Revolt” suffers for that lack of narrative flow. He also downgrades Nick’s third personality, Carlotta, into a one-scene, shrill crossdresser obvious enough to fool Sheeni’s parents (M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place).

Good thing it’s true, then, that strong casting really does cover a multitude of sins, though there are some very fine actors in “Youth in Revolt” dumbing themselves down into some underdeveloped roles. Jean Smart has a knack for bruised-ego comedy, and Estelle feels like an older, tougher version of Carol in “Garden State.” Galifianakis manages to scare up a few laughs with Jerry, but he deserves starring roles like “The Hangover.” And it’s something of an insult to see a talented character actor like Steve Buscemi getting shoehorned into the tired pop-with-a-midlife-crisis role. As evidenced in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” Ari Graynor’s star is on the rise, but here she’s just eye candy. All are gifted comic actors who occasionally transcend their limitations, but they deserve better. They create characters begging for more screen time.

Where “Youth in Revolt” works best are the scenes between Cera, perennially likable if you buy his “I’m timidly adorable” act, and Doubleday, who seems headed toward a future as the brainy beauty in off-the-beaten-path romantic comedies. There’s a sweet, first-love chemistry there that gives “Youth in Revolt” a big, fluttering tween heartbeat (no teeth, though). Attribute the best of this feeling to Cera, who has built his career on puppy dog eyes and self-conscious awkwardness. Like Arteta’s take on Payne’s journals or not, Cera’s Nick has an Everygeek quality so appealing it’s hard to resist rooting for his happy ending.

Grade: B-

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