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My thought on today

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-

Yi, Cera shine in occasionally too-cute “Paper Heart”

Charlene Yi and Michael Cera meet cute (see paper dolls) in "Paper Heart."

Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera meet cute (see paper dolls) in "Paper Heart."

“Paper Heart” is the kind of movie that’s so aggressively twee in its indie hoodie-and-battered-Pumas appeal, so “we’re being this cute totally in the name of irony” that it sputters in parts and occasionally threatens to lose our interest. We almost stop caring. How much low-budge, quasi-documentary ruminations about love can we stand?

When actors like Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi (remember Martin’s perpetually baked squeeze in Apatow’s “Knocked Up”?) are involved, the answer is “a whole, whole lot.” Cera and Yi, a real-life couple (we think) during filming, lend much authenticity to a movie that has a shaky-at-best  foothold in reality. These two have a shy, tremulous chemistry that feels surprisingly real, and it’s this banter — illustrated beautifully while they shop for groceries, or have dinner in some dive — that holds our attention and tugs (well, more like a polite “um, excuse me, please?”) at our heartstrings. Somehow Cera and Yi create a budding romance on camera that seems tentative and true. Considering they’d already met and were dating in real life … well, let’s call it talent and leave it at that.

It’s no accident, I suspect, that Yi and Cera’s performances are deceptive, since Yi and Nicholas Jasenovec made “Paper Heart” a devious film that teases us to decide what’s real and what’s not. While the premise is simple, the follow-through is anything but: Yi, with her thick glasses and forever-mussed ponytail, takes off across the United States on a journey to discover what love is. Since she doesn’t understand it or believe she’s capable of finding it herself, she interviews everyone — divorcees, gay and straight couples, remarkably self-assured children on an Atlanta playground. (This last interaction spawns the movie’s funniest line, about how when you truly love someone you take them to Applebee’s and buy them wings. Amen, little one.) Her friend Nicholas Jasenovec (played not by Jasenovec himself but by actor Jake M. Johnson), also a filmmaker and her producer, films everything, including her meet-awkward with Michael Cera, more or less playing himself, at a party one night. Cera’s taken with her, calls her “mysterious,” and thus begins a courtship of studiedly clever instant messages (he proposes marriage early on), hand-in-hand searches for dinner at the local market and one sweetly disarming first kiss. All the filming, though, strains the new relationship, and pressures Yi to define, in no uncertain terms, what she’s found … even though she has no clue.

This all seems a little muddy, right? It’s meant to be. Or at least I think it is. We cannot know what’s really happening, if Yi and Cera are just actors putting us on or if they really feel what they say they feel. Maybe it’s a little of both. Even more puzzling is that we do not know how “Paper Heart” ends. Yi and Jasenovec aren’t about to let us in on the joke if there is one. This is frustrating, maddening and so underhanded that it’s tempting not to care at all. Johnson-playing-Jasenovec seems to express our frustrations here, insisting he film everything the young couple does and says. He, like us, seems to ask: This is a documentary-of-sorts; we’re making voyeurs out of our viewers here, so why the furtiveness? Then there’s the fact that Yi and Cera won’t allow us in certain parts of their relationship. Maybe that part fits. Relationships look different to the people outside of them, after all. There are places the camera and microphone should not capture.

So, yes, all the uncertainty and the feelings of being hoodwinked and generally jerked around — these make it difficult at times to harbor much affection for “Paper Heart.” But enough cannot be said of Yi’s talent as an actress, a script writer, a comedian. What a chameleon she is: shy and outgoing, ambitious and timid, spontaneous and guarded. She epitomizes what Whitman meant when he wrote “I contain multitudes.” Try as we might, we cannot pin her down. And so “Paper Heart” succeeds in its small way because Yi herself, much like love, is an endless source of mystery and fascination.

Grade: B-

One to Watch: “Paper Heart”

Summer ’09 must be the summer of indie romances … which poses absolutely no problem for me, since I’ll take a fairly decent indie romance over something like “The Ugly Truth” or “The Proposal” any day. On the heels on “(500) Days of Summer” comes “Paper Heart,” a Sundance-beloved movie about a girl (Charlene Yi, whom you may remember as the perpetually stoned funny girl in “Knocked Up”) making a documentary about love. From what I’ve read, Michael Cera appears throughout to do what he does best: be shyly adorable and warmly quirky. Seth Rogen, Paul Rust and Demetri Martin co-star.

The author of Musings at a Picnic suggested a “Paper Heart”/”(500) Days of Summer” drive-in double feature. A girl can dream.

 

Quick Picks: “Nick and Norah,” “Nights in Rodanthe”

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena)

“I will not be a goody bag at your pity party,” Norah (a quirk-perfect Dennings) curtly informs heartsick Nick (the awkwardly hilarious Cera) in the self-consciously hip but pithy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and so begins one of the most smart, sweet and satisfying big-screen teen couplings to date. The meet cute unfolds thusly: Newly dumped by his sexpot ex Tris (Dziena), Nick and his queercore band The Jerk-Offs set out for a gig at a dive Big Apple bar. He meets Norah, who’s babysitting her perpetually smashed pal (Graynor), and various hijinks – some funny, a few contrived, one disgusting – ensue. But the disconnected plot matters little: the dialogue is snappy yet believable (take that, “Juno”), the soundtrack is indie perfection and the chemistry crackles between Cera, Jedi master of the bashful zinger, and a sarcastic, smokin’ Dennings. Here’s a pity party worth crashing.

Grade: B-

“Nights in Rodanthe” (Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Viola Davis)

Nothing ruins a pair of subtle but heart-wrenching performances – here delivered by Lane, faultlessly vulnerable as always, and a surprisingly poignant Gere – like schmaltz. And too many scenes in “Nights in Rodanthe” are littered with big, steaming piles of the stuff. That’s hardly surprising – nobody does gag-me melodrama like Nicholas Sparks – but it’s disheartening to those of us itching for a fresh Lane-Gere romance. (Remember “Unfaithful”? Chemistry doesn’t get hotter.) Still, these big-screen vets manage to develop characters that transcend the so-bad-Hallmark-wouldn’t-print-it dialogue. Lane is Adrienne Willis, a wife and mother with a crumbling marriage who escapes to Outer Banks, N.C., to tend to a friend’s (Davis) seaside inn. She finds a kindred spirit in the visibly damaged Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere), and the two stumble into a tentative, life-changing mid-life romance. The manipulative ending’s over-the-top horrible, but it doesn’t get better than Gere and Lane. Prepare to watch your heart melt into your popcorn.

Grade: C+