When I am old and thoroughly demented, living in a nursing home, I feel certain I will grab the arm of anyone who passes to tell them about the time I took Michael Cera's virginity. This particular lapse will be forgivable it may even become a trend among members of 21st century senile generations because as moviegoers, we will all have been there with him for multiple attempts and some successes.
There was the fruitful encounter in the chair in Juno, and the time we almost went all the way with him on a couch in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. We would have done it in Superbad if vomit hadn't been an issue. And now, in Miguel Arteta's uneven but occasionally quite funny Youth in Revolt (an adaptation of C.D. Payne's successful mid-'90s book Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp), we watch as Cera, by way of a devilish alter ego he calls François Dillinger, engages in criminal acts in hopes that they'll lead to carnal acts with a girl who likes bad boys.
Cera is Nick Twisp, the hyper-intelligent son of a divorced Oakland, Calif., couple, foolish Estelle (Jean Smart) and aggrieved George (Steve Buscemi), who would rather not pay child support. Nick, a self-proclaimed voracious reader of "classic prose," watches in disgust as his mother makes out with her scam-artist boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis, cinematic slob du jour). Across town, Dad is groping his young girlfriend, Lacey (Ari Graynor, Cera's hilarious co-star from Nick & Norah).
Given his exquisite dorkiness, Nick appears to have no chance of losing his virginity anytime soon, but naturally, sex is all he thinks about. His chances brighten when Jerry, on the lam, takes Nick and his mother with him to a trailer park near Clear Lake called "Restless Axles." (The film was shot in Michigan, not Northern California, which may explain why Arteta uses Claymation and graphics to depict all the road trips; it might have been a penny saver.) There, Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a luscious teenager who is just as pretentious as Nick and not quite as innocent. "I've only made love once," she tells him. "It was less than erotic." Sheeni shares a souped-up trailer with her devoutly Christian parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place).
The film seems to think Sheeni's parents should be punished for their religious beliefs, assuming a hypocrisy that is often ascribed to Christians in film but in this case seems absent; the Saunders are mostly just humorless and unfriendly. The anti-adult attitude extends, ultimately, to every grownup in the film. Jean Smart is a good comic actress, but what can you do when you're written as a one-dimensional slattern, held in contempt by your hipster child? Even the best of the grownups, the friendly hippie-dippie neighbor (Fred Willard) is something of a grotesque. This isn't so much youth in revolt as youth in disdain, which seems ironic, given how much Nick and Sheeni long to have access to the ways of the adult world, including travel and freedom and, yes, sex.
Sheeni, it turns out, is tentatively open to relieving Nick of his virginity. She does have a boyfriend an athlete, poet and French speaker named Trent but she's game for any new admirers. There's a captivating smugness to Doubleday; when she flirts, you see traces of Sue Lyon's Lolita. She and Nick court in a flurry of name-dropping, a romantic version of Amazon's "If you liked this, you'll love this" routine. For her, it's anything French, from Godard's Breathless to Serge Gainsbourg, and though Nick favors Frank Sinatra, he adapts. When Sheeni encourages him to be bad as part of a scheme to get him banished to Clear Lake, Nick develops his alter ego.
François, also played by Cera, smokes, has a pencil-thin mustache and wears a costume of pristine white trousers, blue shirt and white loafers without socks. Superbad, he wantonly destroys property and several cars and plays Cyrano for Nick. François and Nick appear in the frame together, which sounds like great fun but mostly feels like a Saturday Night Live skit in which the writers spoof Cera's reputation for being one-note.
Maybe he is. Only time and a few roles in which he's not playing an anxious virgin will tell. The movie was a bad choice for him, given his résumé. But there are moments when you are surprised and delighted by his soft, subversive delivery and the way he's turned his distinctly non-Hollywood body into an asset. You think, There's no one quite like this kid (well, except for Jesse Eisenberg, who also dealt with the burden of virginity in Adventureland). And there is guile in François's eyes, which suggests that someday, Cera will indeed play a different kind of part, and quite possibly, very well.