“Meet Your Ancestors” says the poster to Year One over portraits of a hammily ironic Jack Black and a typically bewildered Michael Cera. Black is bearded and even hairier than usual. With his shoulder length blond wig Cera rather like Garth in Wayne’s World and decidedly feminine. The joke is on us, genetically speaking. You wouldn’t take either for the sharpest stick in the forest.
A couple of years back your truly suggested that Jack Black embodied the average American male for our times as surely as (say) Gary Cooper represented the bedrock integrity of the New Deal era of the 1930s, Tom Cruise embodied the Reaganite 80s and Tom Hanks the Clintonite 90s. An apathetic anarchist and party hearty animal, Black still seems like a reasonable reflection of the slacker generation, though you have to wonder how much longer he can sustain the same old shtick.
Cera is something different, and perhaps in a few years we will look back on Year One as a kind of passing of the torch from the millennial cave man Black represents to the softer, kinder, gentler man-child that is Cera’s speciality.
Granted it’s more than a little premature to be talking up Cera as an icon for our era. Superbad (2007) was his first movie, and we’ve only seen two more since. But sometimes one role in the right film is all it takes. I’m thinking of Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin in The Graduate, Richard Dreyfus in American Graffiti, or John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. They all went on to enjoy important careers, but with these key roles they had already bookmarked their space in the audience’s affections.
Yes, he could run out of steam, or luck, any day. He obviously can’t go on playing teenagers much longer. But Cera’s remarkable three-fer – Superbad, Juno, and Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist – strikes me as the foundation for a long and lasting relationship with movie fans of his age (he’s 21).
You don’t have to be young to appreciate this trio of whipsmart, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sensitive, and frequently very funny movies, but they will be most keenly appreciated by those experiencing the awkward stages of their own first romantic attachments.
Cera, it will be noted, hasn’t shown any range yet. In all three movies he’s essentially the same sweetly self-conscious, physically uncomfortable, earnestly confused romantic that he also plays in Year One (and that he first essayed as George Michael – Jason Bateman’s son – in the cult TV comedy series, Arrested Development).
It shouldn’t matter. The nervous but still beatific smile; the hesitant, sotto voce quips delivered with that uneven, fast-slow speech pattern; the permanently anxious eyes… That’s what he does, and he does it well. As Paul Matwychuk blogged the other day, “Most comedy is about upending social rules, but Cera has found a way to make politeness funny — maybe it’s the way he delivers his lines as if he always expects the other person to hit him over the head. Even the girls.”
Woody Allen fashioned a long career out of an equally circumscribed skill-set (but he could write). Cera is a more gifted actor than Woody, and reportedly very sharp at improvisation. Plus he’s either very lucky, or a shrewd judge of material.
Year One is no masterpiece, but it’s going to be seen by plenty of people before it’s through and Cera fares well, considering. Meanwhile the intriguing faux-documentary Paper Heart (in which he plays himself) generated good buzz at Sundance, and first reports from previews of Youth In Revolt indicate that Cera is showcased to excellent effect as yet another lovesick virgin and his philandering French alter-ego.
And then there’s the exciting prospect of Scott Pilgrim, a hipper kind of comic book adaptation from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, with the Ontario-born actor stretching not too far to play the 23-year-old Canadian slacker who must defeat his girlfriend’s evil exes in videogame style duels.
Whatever will be, will be, but it looks like a good bet we’ll be enjoying Cera’s amorous angst for a long while yet.
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