Monday, July 16, 2012

Double Feature: Youth In Revolt/Submarine

2009, Miguel Arteta (hey, he also did Cedar Rapids)  -- netflix
2011, Richard Ayoade (hey, Moss from IT Crowd)  -- netflix

The common mistake people who dislike Michael Cera make about Michael Cera is that he has no range.  He has range, narrow range though it is, but range nonetheless.  He has range in the same way Woody Allen-the-actor (not Woody Allen-the-writer/director) has range.  The characters he plays are all some extension of his normal way of being.  To step outside of himself too drastically would more than likely find Cera in awkward, uncomfortable waters.  He's not chameleonic.  He can't stretch the way a Sam Rockwell or Mark Ruffalo can.  If he's going to be an action hero, well, it has to be the whiny, ineffectual Scott Pilgrim.  He won't be seen in spandex, not seriously anyway.  If he's going to be the romantic lead, as he has been numerous times, they're going to be the quasi-bumbling, fumbling, mumbling type he's played since departing the role of George Michael Bluth in Arrested Development.  It's kind of his thing.  It's not his only thing, but he has it down, and if you're paying even the smallest amount of attention you will catch the differences between Juno Michael Cera, Superbad Michael Cera, Nick and Nora's... Michael Cera and here, Youth In Revolt's Michael Cera.

In YinR, Cera plays Nick Twisp, an intelligent yet awkward teen (surprise), hyper-aware of his terrible name, and ever keen to find romance, moreover, sex.  But given his lowly social status, his unconventional appearance, and his never-not-embarrassing mother and stepfather (a well cast Jean Smart and Zach Galifianakis) achieving his objective takes nothing short of leaving for a trailer park on a summer retreat and running headlong into the hyperconfident, hyper-intelligent Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), daughter of two overbearing Christian parents looking for any means to subvert their control.  Part of which includes manipulating an incredibly game Nick into vying for her affections to ever-alarming degrees.

Youth in Revolt doesn't play out in typical fashion, as it winds over not just a summer but an extended period of time and distance during Nick manufactures a second personae -- the smooth, cool, mustachioed, French-ish Francois -- who acts as the devil on his shoulder, provoking him to further extreme actions in his attempt to be with and woo Sheeni.  The dichotomy between Nick and Francios truly highlights what Cera is capable of as an actor, creating two distinct personalities for the same character that also feel natural as a whole isn't as easy as it seems, but he pulls it off.  The cast is universally excellent, including some great cameos from Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, and Ray Liotta.  Based on the novel by C.D. Payne, there's a heavy narrative component and an archness that's equally sly and trying too hard.  In the end it's an enjoyable movie, but feels too much like Wes Anderson-lite, weird but not weird enough, and clever but not clever enough.

Compare this with Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, Submarine, and you will see two films that are flip sides of the same coin.  They both are, essentially, telling the same type of story, in a similar genre, in a similar style, but achieving two very different results.

Ayoade's film, like YinR, features a young protagonist, Oliver Tate, not exactly the most popular sort in his class, seeking a romantic relationship but not quite sure how to go about it, until it happens on its own in an organic fashion.  Whereas YinR takes a more fantasy-laden approach to the subject matter, Submarine goes naturalistic, dispensing with most attempts at being clever and achieving a more personal connection to the material.  Oliver's romance has to contend with school beatings, the looming marital troubles of his parents, and his object of desire's mother's brain tumor.  These aren't things played for laughs yet there is a natural spark amidst the darkness of the story that keeps it from getting morose.

There's also less... scriptyness, if I can make up a word, to Submarine's young romance.  Although the narration from Craig Roberts is just as florid and excessively insightful into the inner workings of our protagonist's mind as that of Michael Cera, the story and how it is told feels far more organic, how the characters act and the events that occur seeming more realistic and less a plot device.

What happens in Submarine is a story that could happen anywhere, but the setting in Swansea gives the background personality.  Many young directors will make films that act as love letters to their hometowns or regions they're particularly fond of, and spend a lot of extra time visually lingering in the surroundings, but Ayoade uses the environments sparingly, keeping the focus on Oliver's emotional core rather than getting distracted by his trappings.  There's a definite sense of familiarity that all the players have with their surroundings, and it's this comfort, rather than any overt tactic on the director's part, that forms a living atmosphere to the picture.

I'm certain I laughed more with Submarine than I did with YinR, and I'm also certain I empathized more with Oliver Tate than Nick Twisp.  Where the flourishes that occur in YinR's story are meant to be entertaining, and they are to a degree, Submarine for me was the more engaging film.  The emotional core of Ayoade's film was far more real, less plot-driven.  Pitting them head to head, I would vouch for Submarine over YinR, and I'm not dismissing the latter for the former as both present a solidly enjoyable product. At the same time, I wouldn't outright comment that either are mandatory viewing.  The genre in which they play is a well worn one, and both present a nice take thereof, still not enough in either propels them to the upper echelon, or beyond.