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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-

No. 11: “Blood Simple” (1984)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.” ~~Ray

What is it about best-laid plans crumbling to hell that fascinates us so endlessly? Is it the thrill of watching greed and lust pollute the simplest of schemes, careful blueprints drawn up with what seems like attention to detail? Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe there’s something comforting about maintaining distance, assuming a stance of superiority that allows us to say — and believe — “I’d never let that happen to me.”

The perverse magic of Joel and Ethan Coen’s stylish, enormously disquieting “Blood Simple,” what shakes us to the core, is that the opposite is true: Easy plots like this get dreamed up by normal people, and they unspool in crazy ways that boggle the mind. For every hairline fissure that surfaces, there are hundreds more underneath, slowly working their way to the top. The bitter end, the Coens understand, is always so much closer than we think.

It is the illusion of control that sets in motion the undoing of most every player in “Blood Simple,” which begins with a seemingly simple plan (code for “something’s about to hit a fan”): Slimy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand in her first big-screen role) is having an affair, so he hires Private Detective Loren Visser (a skin-crawlingly good M. Emmet Walsh) to tail her. When Marty discovers Abby is bedding Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders, he’s glad to pony up dough for a hit. Marty’s out for blood. Problem is, Visser’s out for money — as much as he can get — and he knows the location of his client’s safe. That was Marty’s first mistake.

Since this is film noir, the initial mistake leads to another … which leads to another … which unleashes a slow-building hurricane of potential and totally unforseen complications. Suddenly nobody, not even Abby, so wide-eyed in her protests of “I ain’t done nothin’ funny,” is able to walk away from this mess without making bloody getaway tracks. There are dead bodies and very-nearly-dead bodies and mistaken identities. The whole business might be downright comical if it wasn’t so damn sleazy.

But wait! This is Coen brothers film noir, so comedy abounds. “Blood Simple” is where the Coens introduced their brand of nefarious tomfoolery, so the jokes sneak up on us like Jack the Ripper. Consider Ray’s summary of what happened on a midnight trip: “He was alive when I buried him.” Gulp. Or Visser’s response to Marty, who says the Greeks beheaded bad news carriers: “Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” Yipes. Humor doesn’t get much blacker (note the song that announces the final credits). Barbed observations like these are the kind that clump uncomfortably in the throat, yet they spotlight human folly too good not to laugh at: Every man thinks he’s gripping the reins, and not one of them actually is. The actors time these lines faultlessly, with Walsh, who sweats menace, and Hedaya, perfectly cast as the fiendish Marty, doing heavy lifting. McDormand, all innocence, shows early promise she’s more than made good on. And Getz might have the best job of all: He shows us how easy it is for the straight man to nosedive into depravity.

More brilliance reveals itself as “Blood Simple” rumbles toward the finish. The staggering cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfield, transforms the dusty Texas landscape into a character with its own motivations, its own agenda. The desert turns an unforgiving eye on these miscreants, offers not a moment of solace. Behind the camera, the Coens do their part to make their film a dark visual masterpiece. They amplify that desolate feeling with artful, pointed shots: a blood drip here, a thumping ceiling fan there, a close-up of dripping sink pipes. Matter of fact, that last shot pins the film’s thesis, squirming, to the wall: If you’re dumb enough to think something’s just what it seems, prepare to suffer the consequences.