“Youth in Revolt” is a very random movie that enjoys wallowing in a state of confusion. The film is smug and largely unfunny, but it’s consistently bewildering, and not in a manner that encourages further inspection. It’s a grab-bag experience built around iffy irreverence born from author C.D. Payne, yet the film seems to have tied its own shoelaces together in its eagerness to pay tribute to the writer’s intricate, darkly comic vision.
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is a precocious teenager living with his mother (Jean Smart) and her slob boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), passing the time idolizing Frank Sinatra and masturbating. On a weeklong vacation to a trailer park, Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a like-minded soul who takes a shine to the shy guy’s tastes and general soft demeanor, though she remains infatuated with her ex-boyfriend, Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright).
Nick, fearing he’ll be passed over as a romantic partner, forms an alter-ego named Francois Dillinger, who’s reckless, profane, and sexually bold. Allowing Francois to raise hell, Nick takes on the incoming danger with growing confidence, hoping to attract Sheeni with his rebel status, but also concerned that all this newfound troublemaking will land him in jail.
Because “Youth in Revolt” is based on a novel, the screenplay needs to pack plenty of locations and characters into a brief 85-minute running time. It’s a confusing jumble of diverse tones that never truly settles into a comfortable groove, with the sinking feeling that director Miguel Arteta is chasing his own movie, not guiding what he has to a proper equilibrium.
There’s a slyness to “Youth in Revolt” that establishes itself early on, making the first reel of the picture promising in the way it introduces the audience to the insular world of Nick. He’s a kid who can’t catch a break with girls, is roughly 40 years too young for his taste in music and movies, and abhors his last name. Finding some hope for a future in Sheeni, Nick thrusts himself into action, looking to win over his dream girl with a series of escapades that will prove him a virile and decisive young man. It’s a proper launch for an idiosyncratic character journey, as Nick is comedically shoved into the battlefield of life to find a way into Sheeni’s heart.
Of course, not everything goes as planned for Nick. The screenplay by Gustin Nash (who penned the equally useless “Charlie Bartlett”) is confused quickly, caught between the demands of adaptation and the needs of the film. Nick simply bounces episodically from incident to incident, with Cera deploying his mousy act to passable results. The actor and the film itself are more interesting when Dillinger arrives, debuting a nasty streak that’s good for a few laughs.
Dillinger also offers Cera an opportunity to stretch as an actor, plausibly playing a mustachioed bad-ass who nudges Nick into trouble wherever he can. “Youth in Revolt” is the first glimpse I’ve had of Cera as a plausible actor, capable of breaking his one-note habits. While still buried under his kitten-voiced smarm, “Youth in Revolt” promises a brighter future for the prince of sarcasm.
Hopelessly affected at times (Sheeni’s got a thing for the French New Wave) and marked by a few meaningless turns into animation, “Youth in Revolt” runs out of gas long before it ends, signing off with a drug-induced, cross-dressing climax that stops the film cold. There’s little to care about in “Youth in Revolt,” and even less to laugh with; the film lost in a stupor it never successfully navigates out of.