Michael Cera Directs “Brazzaville Teen-Ager”

Charles Grodin and Michael Cera star in Cera’s “Brazzaville Teen-Ager.” Courtesy of JASH.

Charles Grodin and Michael Cera star in Cera’s “Brazzaville Teen-Ager.” Courtesy of JASH.

It may sound rather odd that Charles Grodin would choose to make his first film appearance since 2006 in a viral short directed by Michael Cera—that is, until you realize that Cera has based his picture on a short story written by Bruce Jay Friedman. Four decades ago, Friedman’s short story, “A Change of Plan,” served as the source material for Elaine May’s brilliant 1972 comedy, “The Heartbreak Kid,” the film that should’ve made Grodin a star. But like the great, unappreciated actor (regrettably best known for adding a dash of class to the slapsticky “Beethoven”), May’s film hasn’t gotten its fair shake with the public, and remains out of print.

Grodin’s appearance in Cera’s “Brazzaville Teen-Ager” is brief but potent. He plays the ailing father of Gunther (Cera), a meek young man lacking the neurotic lovability so often witnessed in the actor’s screen persona. It’s a refreshing change of pace from an actor I’ve long considered to be among the best of his generation. The combination of impeccable comic timing and aching vulnerability he sported on “Arrested Development” and in Greg Mottola’s uproarious “Superbad” was wholly unique and utterly engaging. It wasn’t a shtick comprised of broad posturing. Cera was tapping into the sensitivity and uncertainty that men often bury within a shell of self-assurance, and women loved him for it.

I’ve always been fascinated to see what Cera might make as a writer/director, and this first filmmaking effort is hugely promising. Based on Friedman’s 1966 short story of the same name, “Brazzaville” follows Gunther’s eyebrow-raising efforts to help his father’s health improve, while breaking through his cold, distant demeanor. Jack O’Connell gets the film’s biggest laughs as Cera’s boss who begrudgingly agrees to assist him on his mission. To say more would be criminal. Take a look at the full 19-minute film below…

This is the first film to premiere on Cera’s new YouTube channel JASH, featuring the work of comics such as Sarah Silverman, Tim & Eric and Reggie Watts. Check out its official page here.

By the way, if you are not familiar with the underappreciated awesomeness of Mr. Grodin, here are five essential titles…

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Forget the awful Ben Stiller remake. May’s satirical look at a nebbish’s pursuit of an elusive ideal is both laugh-out-loud funny and downright excruciating—in the best sense of the word. Grodin’s fearlessness in portraying his character’s darker dimensions may have prevented studios from seeing him as leading man material. It’s entirely their (and our) loss.

Real Life (1979)

Grodin perfects the role of squirmy straightman in Albert Brooks’s accomplished directorial debut. It’s a surreal send up of cinema vérité, complete with crew members running in and out of rooms with camera strapped to their heads while recording a couple’s squabble. A chilling premonition of our modern Reality TV culture.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Jim Henson’s splashy follow-up to “The Muppet Movie” was distinguished by big production numbers evocative of Busby Berkeley that featured the incomparable Miss Piggy. It was rather awe-inspiring to behold Grodin, as lovesick thief, getting believably hot and bothered over a porcine-shaped mass of felt and foam. He’s hilarious, particularly when he belts out a lustful operetta.

Midnight Run (1988)

Back when he was in his prime, Robert De Niro was a formidable presence onscreen. You had to be an A-grade actor in order to go toe to toe with him in a scene, and Grodin did it without breaking a sweat. Martin Brest’s crime caper gets a great deal of comic mileage from its mismatched duo’s peerless chemistry, yet it also mines the poignance in their budding friendship.

Dave (1993)

Though Grodin never received the star showcase he deserved, he consistently proved himself to be an indispensable supporting player, bolstering even epic failures like 1987’s “Ishtar” with his deliciously deadpan wit. One of the brightest blots on his filmography is Ivan Reitman’s comedy about a Presidential doppelganger played by Kevin Kline (Grodin earned acclaim as his devoted friend).

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