Michael Cera as Nick Twisp and Francois Dillinger
Portia Doubleday as Sheeni Saunders
Jean Smart as Estelle Twisp
Zach Galifianakis as Jerry
Erik Knudsen as Lefty
Adhir Kalyan as Vijay Joshi
Steve Buscemi as George Twisp
Fred Willard as Mr. Ferguson
Ari Graynor as Lacey
Ray Liotta as Lance Wescott
Justin Long as Paul Saunders
Rooney Mara as Taggarty
Jade Fusco as Bernice Lynch
Lise Lacasse as Matron
M. Emmet Walsh as Mr. Saunders
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Quirky and strange at times for sure, but Michael Cera really carries this coming-of-age comedy in ways he hasn’t quite done in his previous roles.
While on a family vacation, teenager Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) meets the beautiful and smart Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) and falls instantly in love, but he soon learns the only way to earn her heart is to do bad deeds, so Nick invents an evil alter-ego, Francois Dillinger (also Cera) who helps Nick do whatever it takes to win Sheeni over.
It’s been a long road for C.D. Payne’s cult novel to come to the screen, and much of it finally getting there can be attributed to actor Michael Cera who was a fan of Payne’s dark coming-of-age comedy about a teen virgin who’ll do anything to be with a young woman he falls for. The movie version of Payne’s novel also marks the welcome return of indie filmmaker Miguel Arteta with his first feature film since “The Good Girl,” arguably Jennifer Aniston’s best role and movie. Pairing the actor and director produces similarly satisfying results.
When we meet Nick, he lives in a house in Portland with his oversexed mother (Jean Smart) and her latest boyfriend Jerry (Zack Galifianakis), but when Jerry falls foul of some navy officers, they go into hiding in the family’s vacation trailer park on a lake. There, Nick meets the smart and sexy Sheeni Saunders and immediately becomes infatuated with her, setting in motion an elaborate plan to be reunited with her once he returns home. This plan requires Nick going against character and “being bad,” so he creates an alter-ego in Francois Dillenger, a well-dressed but foul-mouthed chainsmoking S.O.B. who always knows what to say and do in any situation.
Very much in the vein of indie comedies like “Adventureland” and “Rocket Science,” but also harking back as far as Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” this is another great look at what great lengths a guy will go to in order to win over a woman, and as outlandish as Nick’s journey might get at times, it’s also paved with situations firmly grounded in reality. What keeps the movie so engaging is watching Nick’s transformation from when we first meet him through the end game. It’s a role perfectly suited for Cera, playing up to his comic strengths but also allowing him to branch out by playing multiple characters, often at the same time. Francois is so different from the normal Cera character you can’t help but be amused by the scenes they share as Francois steps in to do and say all the things Nick would never dare.
Portia Doubleday is quite a fine discovery as Sheeni Saunders, a character in the same mold as the title character in “(500) Days of Summer,” exuding the type of knowing “Lolita” sexuality that makes it easy to understand why Nick goes nuts trying to do everything in his powers to be with her. The writing isn’t as finely tuned as “(500) Days,” but you generally know that the relationship between Nick and Sheeni could never possibly work out, though watching Nick doing everything in his powers to make it work is infinitely entertaining.
Much of the humor is driven by the eccentric characters surrounding Nick and how he deals with them, the strangest relationship being the one with his mother, a middle-aged woman clearly tired from raising a son and constantly in need of a man to attend to her emotional demands. At first, that role is filled by Galifianakis’ Jerry, acting as oddly as he did in “The Hangover,” but it’s a small role who only appears a few times in the first act. After he leaves the picture, that role falls to Ray Liotta as a police officer who is more than happy to get Nick out of the house and sending him to live with his father, who just happens to live in the same town as Sheeni.
The film hits a lull in the second act as Nick and his Indian friend Vijay (Adhir Kalyan) take a road trip to Santa Cruz where Sheeni has been sent to a French prep school by her ultra-religious parents to get her further away from the troublemaking Nick. At this points, the film veers closer to movies like “Harold & Kumar” or even “Porky’s,” being more about the two of them trying to get laid. Their trip to find Sheeni also introduces a number of subplots that threatens to clutter things up, but all of it comes together well in the fast-moving third act that includes a number of funny moments with Justin Long and Fred Willard.
The movie’s a little too strange at times for its own good, but one has to give Arteta lots of credit for finding a way to make all of the disparate characters and storylines fit together into a coherent film that never feels disjointed or erratic. Arteta’s use of music and even a couple of animated transitions help tie everything together well, creating a surprisingly well-paced film that includes lots of fine character bits and even an impressive set piece where we get to watch Nick’s alter-ego Francois at his most destructive.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re a fan of Michael Cera or even if you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve tired of him doing “his thing,” this quirky dark comedy offers you 90 minutes of him not just doing what he does best but also showing that he has a few new tricks up his sleeve.