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Movie Review

Youth in Revolt

Que Cera, Cera: Star plays dual role in ‘Revolt’

Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) dreams up a bad boy alter ego named Francois to impress a trailer park queen (Portia Doubleday) in “Youth in Revolt.’’ Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) dreams up a bad boy alter ego named Francois to impress a trailer park queen (Portia Doubleday) in “Youth in Revolt.’’ (Bruce Birmelin/Dimension Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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Rushed into production to beat the threatened directors’ strike in May 2008, “Youth in Revolt’’ was made well before some of us started getting tired of watching Michael Cera play Michael Cera. Not that he’s bad at it - no one plays him nearly as well. It’s just that Cera doesn’t seem to be able to do anything else, and dorky, passive-aggressive, and adorable has turned into an awfully narrow niche. The actor is starting to seem like a multiplex virus, tainting every movie he’s in. When my daughters heard he was starring in an upcoming movie version of their favorite alt-comic, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World,’’ they clapped their heads and groaned: Another project unnecessarily Cerafied.

“Youth in Revolt’’ at least lets him play two characters: a prototypical teen dweeb and the dweeb’s malignant inner bad-boy. The former is Nick Twisp, an Oakland 16-year-old with a life that’s a litany of awful: trashy mom (Jean Smart), mom’s beer-swilling con man boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis of “The Hangover’’), uptight dad (Steve Buscemi), dad’s luscious bimbo girlfriend (Ari Graynor).

The inner bad boy comes to life when Nick meets teenage trailer-park queen Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) and promptly falls head over heels. Sheeni is poised and a little cruel, alternately tempting and taunting the hero until he dreams up an alter ego to handle the antisocial mischief she craves from him. The alter ego is named Francois, chain-smokes, and has a pencil-thin moustache. Cera drops his voice a half-octave to play him and clearly enjoys the chance to be a jerk; the scenes in which the two sides of Nick argue with each other are almost a debate on the persona of the actor playing him.

The movie’s based on a popular series of books by C.D. Payne that are smarter, funnier, and more filthy-minded than you’d expect. Screenwriter Gustin Nash and director Miguel Arteta (“Chuck and Buck,’’ “The Good Girl’’) have ported Payne’s acrid dialogue from page to screen and handed it to a cast that knows how to deadpan it back and forth. There are some good, sharp, surprising laughs in “Youth in Revolt.’’ So why does it feel so dreadfully familiar?

For one thing, because hundreds of movies, from “The Graduate’’ all the way down to half of every year’s Sundance lineup, have driven down to the crossroads of virginal and clever, and the bald patches are starting to show. For another, Sheeni is a nerd’s fantasy with no resemblance to any actual woman (the script lets her name-drop Yasujiro Ozu and Serge Gainsbourg and then, having established her cool cred, never bothers to raise her IQ again).

And a little of Cera’s minimalist bleat goes a long, long way, even with Francois providing off-key harmony. The funniest moments in “Youth in Revolt’’ come not from the star but from Smart, weepily playing dumb, or Ray Liotta as a short-tempered cop who becomes her new boyfriend, or - wonder of wonders - Fred Willard as an aging lefty neighbor who in one exquisite scene is glimpsed face-down on the carpet in his underwear, tranced out on ’shrooms.

A little more of that madness might have made “Youth’’ as subversive as it thinks it is. Instead, the movie’s a revolt in which no one gets hurt or challenged, least of all the man-child at its center or the boychik playing him.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

YOUTH IN REVOLT

Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Written by: Gustin Nash, based on the “Nick Twisp’’ books by C.D. Payne

Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Ari Graynor, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: R (sexual content, language, drug use)

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