Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Generation Gap

A review of The Young Victoria and Youth in Revolt

The dilemmas of youth are universal. Consider Nicholas and Victoria, a pair of late-blossoming youngsters cur­rently making their way toward adult­hood at a multiplex near you. Respectively male and female, American and English, middle-class and filthy rich, they nonetheless face a nearly identical set of difficulties as they navigate the choppy seas of adolescence. Both have foolish mothers and malign, controlling stepfather-figures. Both are variously ignored, manipulated, and bullied by many of the other adults around them. Both are virgins with a strong romantic streak. And both are separated from the girl/guy of their dreams by distance, legal obligations, and even language barriers.

Well, fine, maybe their situations aren’t quite identical. Nicholas is Nick Twisp, the lovesick hero of Youth in Revolt, which fancies itself the thinking teenager’s sex comedy. It’s American Pie rewritten for Juno fans and Arrested Development obsessives — complete with Michael Cera, star of both, as the deadpan, quietly desperate hero. His milieu is West Coast suburbia; his mother is a divorcée who takes up with truck drivers and police officers; and his lady love is Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), the precocious daughter of trailer-park evangelicals, who shares his interest in old movies, world travel, and grand romantic gestures.

Victoria, meanwhile, is Alexandrina Victoria Hanover, best remembered as a formidable widow presiding over the British Empire’s peak, but portrayed by Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria as a glowing girl-queen with a lot to learn. Her milieu is the palaces of 1830s Europe; her menacing stepfather-figure is Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who hoped to become Britain’s de facto regent by dominating Victoria through her mother; and her would-be lover is her cousin, His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who shares Victoria’s interest in opera, horseback riding, and programs of social reform.

If this description makes The Young Victoria sound like the more snobbish of the two movies, do not be deceived. No double feature is more likely to instill a fondness for the aristocratic pomposities of the 19th century, and a weariness with the smug pretensions of the 21st.

As costume dramas go, The Young Victoria is somewhat plotless. It plays as a series of vivid vignettes from the Queen’s early years, strung like Christmas lights along the thread of her long-distance ro­mance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). The domineering Conroy is introduced as the villain, but he recedes after a few early, hammy scenes, leaving the stage to other would-be influencers: King William IV, Leopold of Belgium, and Lords Mel­bourne, Wellington, and Peel.

#page#The dramatic tension, such as it is, resides in the competition between the smooth Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and the devoted Albert to become Victoria’s most trusted confidant. Mainly, though, the movie is a generous portrait of a great era’s birth, and an appreciation of the elite that would preside over it — their culture and their class, their mix of dignity and idealism, and the way their charming stuffiness could melt, when appropriate, into great passion. And the cast, unsurprisingly, is flawless: Blunt is a star in the making, and she’s surrounded by the finest flower of British acting, from Bettany and Friend to Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent.

Youth in Revolt has a similarly impressive supporting cast — Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, Fred Willard, and Zach Galifianakis all put in appearances — but no similar generosity of spirit. That’s a shame, because generosity is arguably more important in a sex comedy than in a historical drama. If you’re going to mock your characters and expose them to sundry humiliations, then it’s important to extend them some compassion along the way.

Instead, Youth in Revolt offers a long sneer at grown-up cluelessness. The movie pretends to satirize Nick’s teenage pretensions — his taste for Sinatra and the French New Wave, his claim to be a “voracious reader of classic prose” — but in reality it shares them. After their first summertime encounter, Nick and Sheeni are constantly being separated: because their families live two states apart; because Sheeni has been bundled off to the French-speaking boarding school; because Nick, who goes in for some juvenile delinquency in an effort to impress his paramour, is being hunted by Berkeley law enforcement. But they’re united, throughout, by their shared contempt for their suburban prison, and for the jerks, fanatics, harpies, and fools — which is to say, every grown-up character — trying to keep them locked away in it.

This means that the movie’s adult cast is largely wasted, since there are only so many ways to play a creep, a doofus, or a slattern. Worse, Youth in Revolt wastes what should be its most inspired conceit. In his quest to “go bad” and shed his Twispiness, Nick conjures up a darker alter ego: the chain-smoking François Dillinger (Cera, again, in tight-fitting slacks and a pencil-thin mustache), who breaks rules, talks dirty, and sets in motion a series of unfortunate events.

I’m not sure that Cera is up to playing a character who isn’t fundamentally sweet-natured, but the movie barely lets him try. After an initial burst of activity, Dillinger is relegated to cameo appearances, marooning us once more with Nick, Sheeni, and the creeps.

Still, I suppose that’s a happier fate than being essentially imprisoned in a gloomy palace by the sinister Lord Conroy, as the future Queen Victoria was throughout her childhood. And Victoria was stuck there for 18 years, whereas Youth in Revolt’s suffocating smugness lasts only 90 minutes — and you can always flee the theater early, if you like.

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