Sundance 2013: Welcome to Michael Cera’s Second Act

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PARK CITY, UT: When the Michael Cera vehicle Youth in Revolt was released in January of 2009, its commercial failure had observers sniffing a backlash to the likable young actor, who’d presumably built up an audience via his work in the hits Superbad and Juno, and on the cult fave Arrested Development. But when the much-loved, much-hyped Scott Pilgrim vs. the World met with similarly underwhelming box office the following year, the verdict was in: it was looking less and less likely the Cera was going to be carrying films the way his Superbad co-star Jonah Hill was. So he did the only sensible thing: he went off to Chile and made a movie about a mescaline trip. Wait, what?

Sebastian Silva’s Crystal Fairy (which we got a taste of earlier this week) is one of the first films to unspool at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and one of the fest’s most interesting stories right out of the gate is that of Silva (who previously directed the arthouse hit The Maid) and his unlikely muse Cera, who not only stars in Crystal Fairy but Magic Magic, another film screening in Park City later this week. Crystal Fairy is, it is safe to say, a much smaller-scale effort than Cera is used to. He told a Sundance audience after Friday morning’s screening that, while shooting a key scene late in the film around a campfire, “We had like five pieces of wood. And they were lighting the scene. And we were running out of firewood. And we had to shoot the scene very urgently so the fire didn’t die before we’d shot the scene.” Co-star Gaby Hoffmann mused, “Our budget was six logs.”

So how does the new, drugged-out, lo-fi Cera play? Surprisingly well. The shaggy-haired gringo hoovers up some coke right there in first scene, reminding us that this, indeed, is not George Michael Bluth; the character itself is a familiar one, the kind of faux-intellectual dirtbag who thinks he’s impressing you with his frequent references to The Doors of Perception. The shock is less the substances he’s inhaling than how he seems to approach the audience: most of his characters to date have been deeply likable, sympathetic even, and he seemed highly complicit in that arrangement (which may be what turned some audiences off to him). His role here is still basically comic in nature, but he’s less of the squeaky-clean manchild type. What’s more, we’re laughing at him most of the time, and his willingness to play such a (purposefully) dislikable and annoying guy — to use the backlash against him in service of the role — indicates a savviness and self-awareness that could serve him well from here on out. If his Sundance dance card is any indication, he certainly seems willing to start taking some risks, and that always makes us more interested in seeing where an actor’s going next.