Viewers of cable television have been inundated with advertisements for the new Michael Cera picture, Youth in Revolt, to the point that my girlfriend literally cries out in disgust when she sees them now. The distributors have gone all out to get promos of this comedy – starring Mr. Cera as a nice guy with a nebbish streak who decides to create an alter ego that will appeal to women – in front of audiences' eyes.
Why this is the movie that the Weinstein Company has decided to champion is unclear: It’s more of the same from Cera, and not terribly funny to boot. He’s made a half dozen films in the last couple of years that are better, all of which rely on variations of the same basic character; this time around, Cera plays Nick Twisp, a teenager looking to find love (a pinch of Superbad) who isn’t quite sure of himself (a dash of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and has a whacky family (a splash of Arrested Development for added flavor).
His entirely uninteresting pursuit of local bad girl Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) forces him to assume the mantle of Francois Dillinger, a Francophile with a taste for danger. Cera’s use of the Dillinger persona could have put a dent in his dweeby image and inspired some impressive laughs at the same time, but the script does nothing with the subversion. Worse than being unfunny, it’s downright boring at times.
Yet audiences will almost certainly flock to see Youth in Revolt, if only because they know it’s playing. Few will head to the multiplex or the arthouse to see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, if only because they don’t know it’s out yet.
And who can blame them? Sandwiched between ads for Cera’s latest romp came a brief, 30 second TV spot for Terry Gilliam’s latest film, the first (and only) bit of advertising I’d seen for the film. Gilliam has a track record dating back four decades, getting his start with the Monty Python comedy troupe before striking out on his own with subversive children’s tales like Time Bandits and more adult fare like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
On top of Gilliam’s past triumphs, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus features the final performance from Heath Ledger, last seen winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Surely some studio head could find a way to market this picture?
Granted, the story’s a little challenging to sell. It’s about the intrusion of a mysterious newcomer, Tony (Ledger), into the world of the equally mysterious Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe of traveling performers (which includes Verne Troyer, a/k/a Mini Me). Without spoiling too much of the mystery, Dr. Parnassus is locked in a war with Satan himself (played with an odd benevolence by Tom Waits) over the fate of he and his loved ones: Can he use his magical looking glass to save enough wayward souls, or is he doomed to fail?
Mr. Gilliam hasn’t made a masterpiece here, but it’s a fascinating tale with luscious visuals, one that centers around the age old go-to questions when a director wants to get philosophical: What is choice? Are we more than the sum of our past experiences? Can we ever really change?
Having died midway through filming, Ledger’s role is filled out by three fellow actors in the scenes set within Dr. Parnassus’s looking glass: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all perform admirably in their pinch-hitting duties. The changes in actor may make sense as far as the narrative goes, but it certainly adds some confusion to the already-muddled plot, making a studio pitch to audiences even harder.
It’s a shame, really. Audiences will go to mediocrities like Youth in Revolt because they don’t know any better; The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, meanwhile, will disappear into the ether because audiences don’t know it even exists.
Sonny Bunch is a writer in Washington, D.C. and blogs at americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly.