August 19, 2010

Supergood: In Defense of Michael Cera

by Vadim Rizov

SCOTT PILGRIM himself, Michael Cera Screen comics tend to have shorter and shorter life cycles, as their one schtick gets overexposed, leading to their quick relegation to supporting parts and, eventually, the scaly world of direct-to-video. Thus went Chevy Chase (decried as lazy and contemptuous of his audience), Pauly Shore (no need to recap the obvious) and now Michael Cera, whose commercial and critical track records are flatlining. Ever since Superbad, his career has consisted of movies practically calculated to irritate people who think "hipster" is the most insulting pejorative ever (Juno, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Youth in Revolt, Paper Heart and now Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), lest we also forget the whole Year One fiasco. The animosity he arouses in critics—or at least bloggers—is remarkable, and terribly misguided.

"Michael Cera annoying" is its own Google auto-complete entry. Negative reviews of Scott Pilgrim have decried Cera’s "singular note of tiresome twee-ness," which is a concise way of synopsizing the charges. Michael Cera, scandalously toplessWhat anti-Cera haters decry is his (presumable) lack of range and his tendency to (for lack of a better term) play man-boys. So, apparently, we're not only drowning in a culture of men who play cute to avoid responsibility (John Krasinski gets accused of this all the time), but his routine is tiresome and sub-adult. That raises a few questions: is Cera's range that narrow, is he really that un-self-aware, and is what he's good at worth doing?

Cera's undoubtedly been playing small variations on the same basic tone for a while now. His voice rarely changes from a monotonic timbre and his facial expression is permanently immobilized. He freaks out over trivialities and handles emergencies with no visible response. One of his most amusing tricks is being disproportionately enthused over something utterly routine: one of the best, smallest lines in Scott Pilgrim is him getting e-mail. "The computer says there's a message for me!," he beams. All that adds up to a lot of nervous energy, and the potential for mining comedy from awkwardness that's rarely exploited: Cera gets to be a self-respecting guy while displaying traits that would normally make him mockable.

Jesse Eisenberg in ADVENTURELAND In his wiry build, lack of vocal inflection and jittery vibe, Cera resembles and is frequently compared to Jesse Eisenberg, who is rightly perceived to be the better actor. Eisenberg has the same knack of generating comedy through mere presence, but in his most comparable part—the Cera-esquely awkward guy who gets the girl in Adventureland—he displayed flashes of plausible anger and aggressiveness, something Cera's never attempted. Eisenberg's upcoming turn as billionaire asshole Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network should only widen the gap. Still, lack of range shouldn't be held against Cera: one persona with small tweaks has worked well for many people [ed's note: look to his Year One cohort Jack Black], and Cera's joke is worth repeating.

The real question is whether he realizes that he's playing a very specific new mold, a post-90s line-straddler trying hard to be non-offensive but still interesting. Many people find that kind of self-consciousness/-paralysis intensely cloying and solipsistic, but that's calibrated into Cera's performances: he always has to learn to be a little more communicative and self-assertive by the end of the movie, even if it's uneasy to tell by his surface mannerisms.

Michael Cera vs. the World Scott Pilgrim pushes that arc further than any of his past vehicles, requiring two new things of its young Canadian star: that he be a guy notorious for messy relationships and lots of cheating (which, given Cera's celebrity, is perfectly plausible no matter what you think of his persona), and that he conduct fight scenes in which he convincingly defeats people with Nintendo combos disproportionate to his actual strength. Cera accomplishes both and explicitly "earns self-respect," which is about as direct an answer to his critics as could be made. But his peculiar calm also helps ground what would otherwise be an otherwise unendurably hyperactive display: he (and costar Anna Kendrick, natch) calm the entire movie down.

What Cera ultimately does is constructive, embodying the bad behaviors of the male twenty-somethings in his generation (passive-aggressiveness, an inability to be sincere, et al.) and renders them non-stereotypical and funny. It's not self-congratulatory comedy, and subjectivity be damned, it really is funny. That it irritates some is part of the point: that kind of exasperation only comes when someone's really touched a nerve, and Cera's done just that.

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Posted by ahillis at August 19, 2010 12:53 PM


The people have spoken. And here's what they said: we're not that crazy about Michael Cera. Don't fret for him though; he's a got a lot of sitcom left in him. He'll be just fine.

Posted by: Dov at August 20, 2010 9:54 AM

Way to write an entire blog post about Michael Cera and fail to mention what is still by far his greatest work to date, on Arrested Development. And I agree that his lack of range shouldn't necessarily be held against him, but it does mean that he's better-suited to smaller character parts rather than leads. Eisenberg is clearly headed onwards and upwards, and he deserves it; I hope Cera will realize his place and recede into the background a little bit. He can be damn funny (again, Arrested Development is his great triumph in that department), but we need less of him.

Posted by: Her? at August 20, 2010 3:02 PM

Nice to see/hear/read somebody stick up for Cera. The guy is great. He has never had a single, unbelievable moment on screen. So what that he's always the same. So have been many, many other successful actors, from Randolph Scott to Red Skelton, Gary Grant, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Harrison Ford and onwards. When we go to the movies and Michael Cera is in the film, we know what we're getting. But what we're getting is Michael Cera behaving with complete believability as Michael Cera in various situations. And that is usually one fucking barrel of fun. Keep it up, Cera -- and as you grow up, some of us, anyway, will be there with you.

Posted by: James van Maanen at August 24, 2010 8:20 PM

i don't think it's fair to say eisenberg is that much better of an actor than cera. to be honest, i'm not super-thrilled on either of them, but you have to take circumstance into account when comparing the two. eisenberg got his start in "squid and the whale" which set a precedent for his career. since then, he's been a sort of neurotic-indy darling. whereas, cera started on a show that, despite being cancelled, has become one of the greatest and most popular sitcoms ever. my point is that eisenberg almost got his respect as an actor by default and he has been offered better roles as a result. in reality, i think if you put cera in "adventureland" or "charlie banks" the results would be no different.

i guess, i'm just not really that impressed by either of them yet. cera is funnier though, i will give him that.

Posted by: reed at September 2, 2010 6:05 PM
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