It's fairly easy to describe the Michael Cera character to someone, no matter what movie he's in, because he's basically the same in every film.
Whether “Superbad,” “Juno” or “Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist,” he's the tall, nervous, gangly guy struggling with love — even in the Bible comedy “Year One.” No surprise that he's that guy again in “Youth and Revolt,” where he plays another Nick: Nick Twisp, a name as purposefully ungraceful as Cera's composure.
What's surprising is that the movie, based on a series of books by C.D. Payne, is, at least in terms of laughs, Cera's best to date, a teen comedy that values sardonic wit over cheap gags and body humor. Cera might be completely recognizable in his geeky posture and ill-fitting vintage clothing, but the jokes are smaller and the supporting characters less broad, allowing the subtleties of his performance to stand out. This is an actor with gifts for pantomime and timing that get lost in his bigger movies.
Typical for a Cera character, the point of Nick's existence in “Youth” is to admire and yearn for his ideal girl, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), who insults him one day on the way to the showers at a vacation campground. Nick spends the next few minutes in dazed wonder, and the rest of the movie trying to win her. Sheeni isn't just a girl, he tells a similarly frustrated friend, but “a comely angel sent to teach me about all that is good in the world.” Lying in bed that first night, after learning of Sheeni's perfect poetry-writing, wind-surfing boyfriend, Nick invokes what is probably a common feeling among high-school boys: “I've got to radically change everything about my personality, or risk dying a virgin.”
The joke is that Nick would be a fairly desirable catch in the real world, tossing off witty asides throughout the movie like little comic firecrackers that leave everyone but Sheeni in stitches. When Sheeni coos over posters of French movie star Jean Paul Belmondo in her room, Nick's response — “I guess he's OK, if you like French people” — gets a big laugh from the audience, while, as with every joke, Sheeni ignores it. Nick tells her he prefers Mizoguchi, especially his greatest film, “Tokyo Story.”
“Isn't that Ozu?” a puzzled Sheeni asks, leading a perturbed but restrained Nick to counter offhandedly, “Who can say?”
This setup takes a suspension of disbelief, but it's one familiar to the genre. Nick is humorously candid and sarcastic. Sheeni is oblivious and aloof. Yet Nick is the one played like a harp. Since they don't live in the same town, Sheeni informs him, she'll have to fall back on the imaginary French husband of her future.
To arrange his banishment from his mother's (Jean Smart) home to Sheeni's realm, where he's arranged a job for his estranged father (Steve Buscemi), Nick invents an alter-ego to be bad for him. His name is Francois Dillinger, also played by Cera, with fake contact lenses, mustache and haughty arrogance replacing Cera's peach fuzz and helplessness.
“Youth” plays Nick's alter ego with a gratifyingly similar bent for self-consciousness. Hapless men in comedy have created alternate personalities to help them with women before, such as George Costanza's opposite George and Latka Gravas' Vic Ferrari. But Francois isn't Nick with another getup and mindset as much as something along the lines of a living, breathing literary device.
Once unleashed, Francois is completely out of Nick's hands, appearing in different ways for different circumstances, often a surprise to Nick and often against his will. Sometimes Francois is a helpful foil, commenting on the action. Sometimes he takes over Nick completely, and sometimes they struggle against each other.
Francois goes overboard getting Nick kicked out of the house, and in a signature scene helps Nick with the seduction of Sheeni. Nick wants to cuddle, but Francois, appearing next to him, plies her with more lurid suggestions. “Is that what you want?” a startled Sheeni asks. “Say yes!” Nick urges Francois, afterward offering, to Sheeni, “If that's OK with you.”
The frequently hilarious “Youth in Revolt” is probably too weird and too loose to be anything else but a future cult classic, but it's a movie that pushes comedy in new directions. And it shows that Cera has the talent to go along. (R) 90 min. HHHHI