Revolting Youth: Cult novel must continue its search for a worthy film adaptation

Jan 6, 2010 at 4:00 am

For years, Hollywood has wrestled with adapting C.D. Payne's 1993 novel Youth in Revolt — which, actually, was three novels collected under one title, and so the possibilities were endless given 500 pages of material to mine. In 1996, FOX filmed a pilot starring Chris Masterson as Nick Twisp, the fourteen-year-old "I'm Single, Let's Mingle" T-shirt-sporting, foreign-film-watching, Frank Sinatra-listening Oakland-stuck virgin from Payne's book. Jane Kaczmarek played his haggard, DMV-working mother. If that sounds familiar, it's only because both actors would ultimately wind up playing son and mother on FOX's Malcolm in the Middle. A bland sitcom that went unaired, Youth in Revolt perished, as did the next screenwriter hired to try again for MTV two years later.

Now comes writer Gustin Nash's version. Nash — who penned Charlie Bartlett, making him 0-for-2 in the revolting youth sweepstakes — has severed the jokes and hijinks from Payne's plain yet playful narrative with a dull ax. The surrealism and sensitivity of the novel, which spawned a cult of collectors who trade the limited-run first edition for hundreds of dollars, has been boiled down till it tastes like pungent tweener formula. Payne may have exaggerated horny teen angst into slapstick and mayhem (what teen doesn't do the same thing?), but he did so effortlessly, earnestly. Nash and director Miguel Arteta try too hard; they want their movie branded a cult favorite before anyone's even seen it.

Winded and weary from its long journey to a bigger screen, the three-books-in-one has been squeezed into a 90-minute CliffsNotes version starring Michael Cera as Every Role Michael Cera's Ever Had. And so the curse of translating Youth in Revolt for moving pictures lives on — yet another didn't-get-it disaster, this time with Nick Twisp as George-Michael Bluth.

Cera is at least allowed a few moments to break character when he assumes Nick's alter ego, Francois Dillinger, who sports a wispy mustache and tight white slacks and smokes nonstop — Jean-Paul Belmondo with homework. He's the devil on Nick's shoulder who says what Nick doesn't to get the girl (Sheeni Saunders, played by Portia Doubleday) and does what Nick can't (like stealing a car and a trailer precisely so he can get in trouble) and who is, by far, the most interesting character in a film lacking, well, character. During those few moments when Nick and Francois share the screen, Cera's having a blast; Francois uses his calm and confidence to squash the squishy Nick.

Alas, Francois is little more than a cameo appearance, and Nick's other persona from the book — Carlotta, poor girl — is but a cheap disguise consisting, briefly, of a dress and a wig; oh, how hilarious. Nick has likewise been stripped of his eccentricities, his smarts, his specialness. Now he's just another horny too-smart movie teen doing whatever he can to get laid in between woefully animated sequences, surrounded by sketched-out weirdos, among them Steve Buscemi as his creepy dad with the bimbo galpal, Ray Liotta as a fascist cop in line to sleep with his mom (Jean Smart, who already played this part in Garden State), and Erik Knudsen as Lefty, so named because that's the direction in which his dick bends.

The movie opens with Nick masturbating beneath his bed sheets, after which he puts on a Francis Albert record and pines for a yesteryear he has never known. He's trapped in suburbia with his worn-out mom and her no-account boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis in what amounts to a bit role), who has just swindled sailors by selling them his piece-o'-crap car. Upon the sailors' return, the threesome decamp for a trailer park in Northern California, where Nick meets Sheeni — the Jean Seberg to his Belmondo. But when Nick returns to Berkeley, he, breathless, does what he can to get back to Ukiah and his Sheeni; thus begins a series of wacky misadventures. It's just a jarring jolt from one escapade to another (burning down half of Berkeley with a stolen car, breaking into and escaping out of a girls' prep-school dorm, trying to ditch a car by sinking it in a shallow pond in front of a police station) interrupted by the needlessly crammed-in cartoons that serve solely as pointless non sequiturs (or, more likely, distractions).

Arteta should have known better. The director of Chuck & Buck makes a valiant attempt, in fleeting fits and starts, to wring some truth and earnestness from Nash's screenplay; having directed one of Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks more true-to-life teleplays, he knows his way well enough 'round a high school hallway. But he is ultimately sabotaged by a screenplay that mistakes nasty for witty and clever for thoughtful. One suggestion: Watch Greg Mottola's Adventureland.