Youth in Revolt isn’t a movie about which I can say, “Go see it! You’ll love it!” Because, based on word of mouth and a lot of other reviews I’ve read, there’s a good chance you won’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it’s a “small” movie. It’s not hugely ambitious, but it seeks only to be charming and entertaining, and it succeeds.
What I can tell you is that I loved it. I went in expecting a high-concept laffer (that’s Variety slanguage for a straightforward comedy with an easily-explained premise) about awkward Michael Cera using his vulgar alter ego, Francois Dillinger to get laid. Game, set, snatch. Instead I got this sort of extended, absurdist riff. It was a pleasant surprise — quirky in the original sense of the word, when it still meant charming and strange, and not obnoxiously twee. It manages to be offbeat in a way that’s intelligent without feeling smug, and honest without being cringe-inducingly earnest, like so many indie films and your fruity love letters.
Youth in Revolt feels strange in that it reminds me of Confederacy of Dunces (a now-dated but cult-classic comic novel), in that a lot of the comedy comes from the characters’ overly formal and preposterously large vocabularies (“Oh Bernice, she’s like our angel of the lavatory.”) It doesn’t explain every joke, and plays out like a subtle Road Trip or American Pie, or a less gimmicky Napoleon Dynamite, introducing characters or plot points that seem inconsequential at first, only to reemerge at the perfect time for maximum comedic effect.
It’s an old-fashioned style, but it works because Michael Cera has incredible timing and the writing is sharp. I can understand it feeling banal, but for me it’s the little flourishes that make it. Take the line from the scene that’s in the red-band trailer:
SHEENI SAUNDERS: Nick, you’re being so bad.
FRANCOIS: Not half as bad as the nasty things I wanna do to you right now with my tongue.
For me it’s the “right now with my tongue” part that makes it; the odd specificity that takes it from just cute-but-who-cares to something special. There are so many times when the dialog is just detailed enough or clipped at just the right moment (odd because I was no fan of writer Gustin Nash’s last movie, Charlie Bartlett). Miguel Arteta’s direction walks a similar, artful line. There’s a moment, just after Nick Twisp’s (Cera) mom and her loser boyfriend (Galifianakis) have moved him out to the country where he meets pretentious Sheeni Saunders and realizes he’s in love: it’s just one shot, a slow motion hold on Michael Cera’s face as he blinks while water pours down his chin, but… it’s brilliant. Perfectly timed, inexplicably hilarious, and says so much with so little.
Zach Galifianakis, Justin Long, and especially Fred Willard do well in supporting roles (yes, Justin Long. He’s never been more than just present for me, but he’s great in this), but you could say that they’re all underutilized in a plot that just floats along without them. To a great degree, it’s a writer’s movie. So much of it relies on subtle, clever wordplay (which of course isn’t very realistic). The protagonist dreams of being a novelist, and everything seems to hinge on characters writing letters or reading each others’ journals. And there are plenty of jokes like the one about Sheeni’s boyfriend Trent writing “futurist percussive poetry.” I’m not sure if that’s funny if you haven’t sat through an awful poetry reading or a bullshit college arts class, but it was hilarious to me. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you didn’t like this, it’s probably because you’re not smart. (Not really).
Okay, one criticism: Zach Galifianakis burns some sailors when he sells them a car with a shoddy transmission. That the sailors are after him is the reason he takes the family out to the country, to hide out. When they get back, they find the car in the living room. Zach Galifianakis: “There’s no door big enough to get that in here. They must’ve taken it apart and reassembled it.”
Cera’s Mom (played by Jean Smart): “But that would’ve take an army of mechanics.”
Galifianakis: “Or a Navy.”
Need I point out the ridiculousness of this plot point? That was one moment where they wrote in a preposterous (and unnecessary) event for almost zero payoff.