The Dark Side of Michael Cera

Michael Cera stars in Janicza Bravo’s “Gregory Go Boom.” Courtesy of JASH.

Michael Cera stars in Janicza Bravo’s “Gregory Go Boom.” Courtesy of JASH.

It’s become a routine practice of casual moviegoers to criticize Michael Cera for offering the same brand of neurotic sweetness in picture after picture, as if mastering a comic persona were some sort of crime (Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen would be mightily guilty if that were the case). I happen to think that Cera is one of the very best actors of his generation, and that his signature deadpan mannerisms are not only uproariously funny, but also astonishingly authentic. The sign-song-y way in which he bid his painfully obvious crush “Byyyye” in 2007’s “Superbad” caused me to wonder whether Cera had been spying on me all throughout my high school career.

To the naysayers who assumed Cera was a pale imitation of Jesse Eisenberg (or vice versa), 2013 has proven to be quite a shock. This will be remembered as the year Cera decided to experiment far outside the boundaries of his comfort zone in a triumphant attempt to avoid the profitable prison of typecasting. He’s exuding the sort of fearlessness that Johnny Depp once sported long before he landed on Bruckheimer’s payroll. Not only have Cera’s recent characters been considerably darker than, say, Paulie Bleeker or Scott Pilgrim, they’ve also allowed the actor to explore far richer and more challenging dramatic territory all the while still managing to deliver laughs. Here are five key Cera roles from this year, ranked in order of increasing darkness…

Arrested Development: Season 4

While Season 3 ended on a rather optimistic note, with Michael (Jason Bateman) and George-Michael (Cera), sailing into the sunset, away from their nightmarishly dysfunctional family, Season 4 suggests that even the Bluths’ lovable father/son duo can’t escape their genetically inherited developmental arrest. As his dad sinks to new lows of desperation, George-Michael harbors deep-seated resentments that threaten to derail his once-unbreakable bond with Michael. Though Cera’s work evokes memories of past seasons, this George-Michael is bolder, angrier and more prone to corruption.

Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012

Though Sebastián Silva’s improvisational road trip comedy (shot in 12 days on the fly) earned a middling review from yours truly, it still represents a considerable leap forward for Cera in terms of his film roles. His portrayal of a self-absorbed American tourist hunting hallucinogens in Chile is entirely devoid of the charm that has marked his previous films. He’s spiky and mean-spirited even when confronted by an unclothed quasi-hippie (sublimely played by Gaby Hoffmann), and when he finally does get to sample his much-desired San Pedro cactus, the side effects are much more unsettling than pleasurable.

This Is the End

His screen time may only add up to mere minutes, but Cera’s cameo surely emerged as one of the very brightest highlights in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s delightfully self-deprecating riff on trendy apocalyptic blockbusters. Ostensibly playing “himself,” Cera relishes in perversely subverting every expectation with his cocaine-snorting, ass-slapping mischief. He’s a riot, particularly during his eyebrow-raising semi-nude scene that depicts him as some sort of vain libertine. It’s enough to make even Nick Twisp wince in embarrassment.

Magic Magic

Silva’s “Crystal Fairy” may have garnered a Sundance prize and a limited theatrical release, but it was never meant to be a major feature. The director made it in his spare time while preparing to shoot this meticulously crafted, chillingly eerie psychodrama. Cera moved into Silva’s family home for three months to learn Spanish for this picture, and his efforts were not in vain. His portrayal of a closeted sadist targeting the vulnerable mind of a naïve American (a brilliant Juno Temple) is both phenomenally creepy and deeply sad. The fact this viscerally affecting gem was unceremoniously dumped on DVD August 6th by the unfeeling hands of Sony is a testament to the dire state of modern indie film distribution.

Gregory Go Boom

Rather than use his YouTube channel, JASH, as yet another online venue for “Funny or Die”-style buffoonery, Cera has used it as an opportunity to flirt with progressively more daring levels of artistry, helming his first directorial effort in the process. Yet the real jaw-dropper uploaded thus far has got to be this 17-minute curio directed by veteran wardrobe stylist Janicza Bravo. As a paraplegic wheeling about the desert while looking for elusive love, Cera makes absolutely no attempt to sentimentalize his character or make him even remotely palatable. He can’t help repelling women, even those who take an interest in him, and his would-be steamy night with a hot date (Anna Rose Hopkins) is a squirm-inducing tour de force captured in one excruciating take. This is cinema at its most uncompromising, and it bodes excitingly well for Cera’s future evolution beyond the frozen banana stand.

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