By Erik Davis (reprint from TIFF '09 -- 9/15/09)
As with most of the popular-book-to-film adaptations, you can look at Youth in Revolt a couple of different ways: From the point of view of someone who has read the source material, and (of course) from the point of view of someone who hasn't. C.D Payne's epic, 499-page novel is to teenage angst what the bible is to Christianity -- and it's always sort of reminded me of what a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye might look like if it was set in modern-day (if somewhat outdated) Oakland -- and featured a 14-year-old Frank Sinatra fanatic who would literally destroy an entire city if it meant winning over the girl of his dreams.
The problem with Youth in Revolt (the book) is that it's practically impossible to smash 499 pages of dark comedic brilliance into an hour and a half on the big screen, and, as such, Youth in Revolt (the film) definitely ends up feeling disjointed and forced in some areas -- but thanks to a wickedly hilarious performance from Michael Cera (easily the best of his career), this brainy teenage sex comedy does manage to dole out a handful of great scenes, making it worthy of your hard-earned box office dollars ... but only if you promise to read the book afterwards.
Cera plays Nick Twisp, a too-smart-for-his-own-good teenager who's been "aged up" a few years from the 14-year-old Nick in the book to make things a bit more believable for the big screen. Nick's trashy, low-rent parents (played by Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi) are divorced, and he's currently shacking up with mom and her sleazy boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis) in Oakland. Yes, Nick is still a virgin, although he and his best friend Lefty (Erik Knudsen) are constantly in training, studying positions and going over techniques in preparation for a day they hope will eventually, ahem, come. Eventually mom and Jerry drag Nick along on a "vacation" to a seedy-looking trailer park in Ukiah, and the uncomfortable, close-quarters parental sex-ness begins to wear off only after Nick meets his trailer park neighbor: Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), who's cute enough, smart enough and seductive enough to quickly take Nick's heart hostage for the long haul.
As Nick and Sheeni's relationship blossoms (in spite of the fact that Sheeni already has a kinda-sorta boyfriend named Trent), so do Nick's feelings towards her -- and when it's finally time to head back home to Oakland, Sheeni persuades Nick to do two things: 1) Get his father a job in Ukiah, and 2) Get kicked out of his mother's house so he can move in with dad. But since Nick is more of an intellectual than a rebel, he's forced to invent a tough, no-nonsense alter-ego named Francois Dillinger, who smokes cigarettes, takes absurd risks and romances women as if these were things he was born to do. Thus, together, Nick and Francois embark on a dangerous journey where laws will be broken, French will be spoken, drugs will be taken and nerves will be shaken -- all in the hopes of winning over the heart and soul of one Sheeni Saunders.
Gustin Nash (Charlie Bartlett) was the unfortunate bloke charged with adapting this behemoth, which, technically, consists of three different books all housed under one roof -- the last of which was not included in the film because it involved Nick cross-dressing and taking on a completely new persona named Carlotta in order to hide his identity from law enforcement and Sheeni, among others. While there's a nod to Carlotta in the film, the choice to not include this section is understandable, considering how it would probably (not) work in a visual medium. Fans of the book, however, will notice that Carlotta isn't the only character (or subplot) missing, but Nash should deserve kudos for getting in as many characters as he did (while keeping it R-rated) ... even if my personal favorite (Dwayne) was left out.
As the quintessential girl of everyone's dreams, up-and-comer Portia Doubleday does a good job with Sheeni -- exuding just the right amount of cute, quirky sophistication needed to successfully bring the character to life. Her relationship with Nick, though, does feel a bit "easier" than it did in the book, where Sheeni acted more like a cat dangling cheese above a mouse so that he can just about taste it. And what I thought would be scene-stealing roles for Steve Buscemi, Justin Long and Zach Galifianakis turned out a tad muted and more watered-down than I had anticipated. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, director Miguel Arteta's choice to stick in a couple of bizarre, freakedelic animated travel montages was a bit much and didn't really mesh with the film's overall vibe.
When Youth in Revolt succeeds, it's when Nick and Francois (both played by Cera) are attempting to execute yet another ridiculously hilarious plan to win Sheeni over, whether it involves destroying half of Oakland or breaking into an all French-speaking boarding school; the book's most memorable scenes definitely serve up big laughs on the big screen. However, the need to cut this sucker up into a clear, concise, fast-moving 90 minutes definitely restricts the audience from getting to see more of (or receive closure from) certain characters, like Nick's friends Lefty and Vijay, as well as Sheeni's hippie-ish brother Paul (Justin Long). The ending of the film (which is completely different from the book) also feels forced and uncomfortable, as if they shot several different conclusions and went with the one that tested the best.
As a huge fan of the source material, I have to say this is as good of a big-screen adaptation as you're going to get from Youth in Revolt. Whether you're a Twisp fanatic or a regular moviegoer looking for something to entertain you on Friday night, the film delivers a fresh enough spin on the teenage sex comedy that it should at the very least keep you chuckling the entire time.