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January 13, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
After forging a fine film career out of coming of age, it’s probably time for Michael Cera to grow up.
And it’s probably time for Hollywood to give movies about sensitive adolescent dorks a rest, too. Thanks to Cera — and actors like “Adventureland’s” Jesse Eisenberg or “I Love You, Beth Cooper’s” Paul Rust who play the Michael Cera part when he’s not available — likable nerd-virgin heroes are so plentiful on movie screens, there ought to be a word for them: nerdgins.
While Cera’s new “Youth in Revolt” is ostensibly one more chance to play the earnest — yet cute and cuddly — teen antihero that he has turned into a franchise in “Superbad,” “Juno,” “Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist,” and “Paper Heart,” it feels more like an act of personal rebellion against his sincerely gawky, and surprisingly appealing screen persona.
Under the direction of Miguel Artita, Cera’s aptly named Nick Twisp concocts ridiculous plans to escape his seriously mismatched parents and pursue the girl of his dreams (Portia Doubleday). That these plans are illegal and potentially lethal, eventually leading to arson, stalking and drugging his beloved into unconsciousness are minor defects in the screenplay, which tries to be clever, but isn’t very.
Along with his nearly suicidal drive to lose his virginity, Nick suffers from being born several decades too late for personal cultural icons like Frank Sinatra or Federico Fellini. When he discovers his goddess has her own fondness for French New Wave cinema of the ’50s and ’60s, he conjures up an evil twin/alter ego, Francois Dillinger.
Unfortunately, despite his efforts to be bad to the bone, under the aviator sunglasses and wispy mustache, the chain-smoking Francois is more foppish than frightening. He’s the Michael Cera of villains; he might as well be named Twisp, too.
Co-stars Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Zack Galifianakis, Ray Liotta, Fred Willard, Justin Long, M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place share Cera’s gift for parodying themselves with total sincerity.
With their help, he sometimes stumbles onto something genuinely funny. Mostly though, he spends the movie just stumbling, less a rebel without a cause than a nerdgin trying to kick-start himself to life.
While reinventing himself may be the next order of business for the “Youth in Revolt” star, director Terry Gilliam reinvents himself with each new project. The guy can’t help it. But with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” he got more than even he could have bargained for.
The tragic death of star Heath Ledger during filming added a layer of metaphysical ambiguity to the whole undertaking … and metaphysical ambiguity was what it was about in the first place.
The “imaginarium” is this bizarre horse-drawn wagon that looks like something out of Charles Dickens, but instead travels the streets of modern London, offering arty freak-show diversions to drunks spilling out of pubs and techno clubs. Christopher Plummer goes slumming, literally, from his more usual noble roles to play the good — well, actually, good and drunk – “doctor,” whose imagination provides the fanciful worlds behind his show’s magic mirror.
Mini Vern Troyer, plays his knee-high sidekick, whose stature is just the right size for an actual side kick. Comely Lily Cole and the smitten Arnold Garfield are co-stars in the motley crew, whose act is reminiscent of the Victorian psychedelia filmmaker Gilliam used to create in his Monty Python days.
The ever-eccentric Tom Waits is along as Dr. Parnassus’ satanic adversary, vying with him to see who can claim more souls. And then Tony (Ledger) shows up, posing even more riddles about what’s true, what’s imaginary, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s what?
When Ledger died, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell jumped in to play his part in the remaining scenes — just in case audiences weren’t already confused enough. That actors of their stature would remember a pal this way is a tribute of sorts, just as the wacky film itself is destined to become.
Whimsical, eccentric, it’s a glorious mess — confounding at times, exhilarating at others. Filmmaker Gilliam must identify with Dr. Parnassus, whose imagination is a heavy weight to bear, a curse as much as it is a gift.
With its mishmash of costume styles and London districts, from slums to trendy shopping plazas, “The Imaginarium” seems lost — or at least floating — in time and space. Without intending to, it gives celluloid immortality to star Ledger in his last screen role … even while illustrating how far short the imagination falls, compared to the real thing.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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