Michael Cera Might Just Be the Most Interesting Actor of His Generation

The Arrested Development star spent years playing predictably awkward teens. Now, his latest roles reject the tropes that made him famous -- and with great success, too.
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AP / Victoria Will

What is happening to Michael Cera right now? Should his recent turn towards the dark side be cause for concern, or is he simply becoming the most interesting actor of his generation?

Up until this summer, his acting career followed a predictable star-making trajectory: a working child actor in Canada, he broke through on Arrested Development as a teen, then followed it up with huge movie comedy, 2007's Superbad. In those works, he created a sharply defined comic persona: the awkward teenager for the post-John Hughes generation.

It would have been easy to trade on this trope for a decade or more, especially since Cera doesn't really seem to age. Cera did cash in for a few years, while putting his unique spin on the archetype. Luckily, most of those movies turned out to be pretty good: Juno, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Youth in Revolt, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But Scott Pilgrim—the last of these films—came out in 2010. What has been doing since then? A minimal (but recurring) voice-over role in Children's Hospital and not much else. Has he been laying low?

Not exactly. This year he stars in four films, as well as a television show, and his choices reveal a nearly unprecedented turn in a successful young actor's career.

First, he came back to the role that launched his career with Season Four of Arrested Development on Netflix, This was a safe, easy choice, and he would have been crucified had he been the lone holdout on the cast. But the first sign of a change was last month's This Is the End. In that hit apocalyptic comedy, Cera and his famous friends (Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill etc.) each play some variation of themselves, but only Cera is game for a complete reversal of his nice-guy persona. In the film's early party scenes, he snorts cocaine in public, harasses women, and generally acts like the biggest jerk in Hollywood (a very high bar). He is such a convincing villain, in fact, that we are all very pleased that he meets his comeuppance when a falling telephone pole impales him while he's searching for his cell phone.

Cera's subversive turn in This Is the End left critics and audiences delightfully surprised, but nobody seemed to take it seriously. Viewers might have assumed this was just a momentary diversion from his past and future career of playing nice guys. But people should have known better, for there were some early indications that Cera would not be interested in playing the good guy for long. In Youth in Revolt, his typically shy teenager had an alter ego—more of an id, actually—who could be seen as a preview of his roles to come. From an interview in Ask Men:

"[H]e's a jerk. But I like him. And, I have to admit, it was fun. It was definitely fun to play the asshole. This is the first movie where I get to have a mustache and an attitude and I'm good with the ladies, which is not how I'm usually cast."

Cera slips into character with ease, an impressive accomplishment considering Cera is not really subverting his previous roles. He creates a rich, complex, mostly unlikeable character who remains fascinating to watch throughout.

Like most good comic actors, Cera definitely enjoys messing with the audience's minds, but with Youth in Revolt and This Is the End, he was staying within the confines of commercial films. That pattern changed with Crystal Fairy, the micro-budget, semi-improvised film by Chilean director Sebastian Silva and in theaters now. He plays Jamie, a snide, arrogant, trust-fund baby who is drinking and snorting his way through Chile. Jamie shares some personality traits with the caricature Cera played in This Is the End, but here he gives a fully rounded performance that is more than a diversion from his nice-guy persona; it's an deep, artful rejection of it.

Presented by

Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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