August 19, 2010
Supergood: In Defense of Michael Ceraby Vadim Rizov 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. What 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. 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. 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.
Posted by ahillis at August 19, 2010 12:53 PM