Ralph Meeker, Dan Duryea, Vince Edwards, Steve Cochran. There’s just something about the asshole.
Scratch that. That’s too strong and vulgar and dismissive of a word. More like… the shit bird, the hinky hombre, the gashouse palooka, whichever old-timey slang you choose to apply. These fellas are smarmy, slimy, ready with the pimp hand, and they sport that proverbial cat-that-ate-the-canary grin whenever a comely broad crosses their path. If you’re upset, you’re just, as Duryea spits in “The Little Foxes,” “showing off your grief” (though he dares utters this to a man, which, in the rare case of the actor’s screen career, causes Mr. Duryea to become the recipient of the bitch slap, rather than his usual backhand). And should you ever flag down a car in hysterical distress; the good looking stinker might not give you the comfort you require. He might just ask, à la Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, the most glorious a-hole of them all: “What’s this all about? I’ll make a quick guess. You were out with some guy who thought ‘no’ was a three-letter word. I should have thrown you off that cliff back there. I might still do it. Where are ya headed?”
Hey, at least he picked her up. As Meeker proved, a jerk can be a softie sometimes, though a clever, conniving one. Unlike the sensitive bad boy, he doesn’t buy all that romantic, raging on the heath hokum. In fact, he’s not one to get dizzy with a dame. He can be quite indifferent — you know, so many women, such little time, another babe will swing my way. I mean this as a true compliment, because how can you resist the Meeker? These jerk-faces are confident, charming meanies, who can dress a girl down with two hard-bitten lines, loosed with a breezy SOB savoir faire.
And oh, yes, that can work some dangerously seductive mojo on a gal. Forget Sylvia Plath and her fascist fetish, boot in the face business; every woman loves a heel in the face, as in the shitheel. When Jean-Paul Belmondo, though a tragic romantic, still manages to petulantly stare down the beautiful waif Jean Seberg, the girl every supposedly “decent” man wants to save from ruin, she can’t resist. After all, as he says himself, “I’m an asshole.”
This is the type of creature Michael Cera must create in Miguel Arteta’s “Youth in Revolt” (adapted by Gustin Nash from the cult novel by C.D. Payne), and, not surprisingly, his object of amour is obsessed with… Oh, la, la! Belmondo! She’s a full-on ’60s Franco-phile, in love with an era when the men were allowed to be weird-looking, the women almost obnoxiously beautiful, and Serge Gainsbourg, a sly brilliant fox, reigned supreme. Wily Serge charmed sweet little France Gall into turning a seemingly innocent lollipop song into an act of fellatio. He also got away with proclaiming his wish to “fuck” Whitney Houston, to her face, on French television and… oh, the French! How can you not love Serge? I certainly do.
But back to Michal Cera, an actor who is about as similar to Meeker, Belmondo and Gainsbourg as Rupert Graves is to Robert Mitchum. In a dual play on his own persona, that of the doe-eyed, insecure nerd whose wit, intelligence and Frank Sinatra records (of course, Sinatra) aren’t going to find him in any young woman’s bedroom anytime soon, and the cool ladykiller of legend, he creates an insidious alter ego named Francois Dillinger to aid in seducing the girl of his dreams, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Does it work? Damn straight it does. Sporting a pencil thin mustache, tight white trousers, an ever-present cigarette and a flat-voiced sociopathic insouciance, Cera moves his shy, virginal outsider teen Nick Twisp into the suave, sexually confident transgressor Francois, amping up Sinatra’s “Pal Joey” credo of treating a lady like a dame, and a dame like a lady. Dames as in, tramps. They’re all tramps.
Since sensitive Twisp’s life seems awash with tramps — tacky, tactless life forms all engaging in wild sex acts instead of him, sometimes within earshot (including his own mother), jaundiced Francois doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Sprung from now divorced, low-rent parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), he endures his mother’s stream of new boyfriends/sex toys (including a sleazy Zach Galifianakis and a scary Ray Liotta), and his father’s perpetual parade of absurdly hot jailbait partners. The world is one big squeaky mattress and hormonally hyperactive Nick is the guy kept awake by its ceaseless creaking.