Michael Cera vs. the World

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Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Photo: Universal Pictures

The drumbeats are already starting to stir. Over on film industry snarkfest Deadline Hollywood commenters are calling out Michael Cera after the failure last weekend of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Gotta love Hollywood. The folks in this town are worse than the political hacks in Washington, DC when it comes to overreacting and misinterpreting a single event or weekend.

Scott Pilgrim‘s poor performance comes at sensitive time in the career of Michael Cera. It was only three years ago the 19-year-old wunderkind was flying high after back-to-back mega-hits Superbad and Juno. That was after a four-year run on the cult fave TV show Arrested Development as George-Michael Bluth.

I personally thought there were a lot of reasons for the failure of Scott Pilgrim. Bad marketing by Universal that sold the film as a “hipster” film. Bad timing going up against The Expendables and the suddenly resurgent Sylvester Stallone.

Then I got a phone call the other evening from a couple of USC film students I’ve been hanging out with. They wanted to go to the movies and I suggested Scott Pilgrim. I really enjoyed the film the first time I saw it and I was up for going again. I figured three more tickets couldn’t hurt Pilgrim‘s flagging box-office fortunes.

“Nah, we don’t want to go to that.” Came the response. “We don’t want to see that kid (Cera). Nobody wants to see that kid anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say. Is it really that bad for Michael Cera that mid-20’s film students don’t want to see him? Isn’t that his core audience? And before you start thinking that these guys might be too snobby for a film like Scott Pilgrim. Consider this. We ended up seeing The Expendables and they really enjoyed it. They weren’t trying to get me to go to a Tarkovsky retrospective.

I understand some of the complaints about Cera. It does often seem like he plays the same character over and over again. Even when Cera wore a caveman suit in Year One he seemed to be playing Michael Cera. But, I think that’s a little too simplistic.

A lot of comic actors rely more on their comic timing than they do immersing themselves in a character like the late Heath Ledger. People aren’t getting sick of Vince Vaughn and he’s a downright lazy actor at times.

In Superbad, Cera not only delivered his lines with impeccable comic timing, he also played the difficult role of straight man in Superbad to Jonah Hill and everyone else in the film. He gave that film a sense realism and gravitas that wasn’t anywhere in the uneven script provided by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. For what it’s worth I think Goldberg and Rogen owe Cera at least 20% on every script they’ve sold since that time. He made them look that good.

His role in Juno was small but vital. Juno was sold as a hip distaff version of Superbad. I doubt seriously it would have made as large a splash in the marketplace without his presence in the film and he had a definite impact on the marketing. No one else in the film had been in a hit remotely as big as Superbad, including Jennifer Garner. And no one outside the film festival circuit had heard of Ellen Page.

I can’t ignore the fact there was a lot of buzz about Diablo Cody and her script. Word of mouth on the film was huge, but it also resulted in a bit of a backlash. When it comes to movies I think we can all agree selling the actors comes first, I mean, why else do you think the Youth in Revolt TV spots (watch just above) started promoting Zach Galifianakis as “Zach Gali- The dude from The Hangover“? Juno became the “female Superbad” and Cera was “The dude from Superbad.”

Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist was a minor hit — it made over $30 million domestic on a $10 million budget — but it may have been the beginning of the end for Cera. I enjoyed his performance, but the inevitable comparisons to the actor’s earlier roles started with that film. I believe that comparison was due more to marketing than Cera’s actual performance.

The next time fans saw Cera on screen was in Extreme Movie, a straight to DVD flick starring Jamie Kennedy. That film was originally made in 2006 and sat on the Weinstein brothers’ shelf until it was released in theaters based primarily on Cera’s sudden popularity. Hopefully, fans knew that Cera had little to do with Extreme Movie but you never know. It was a dreadful film.

He followed with the ill-advised duo of Paper Heart and Year One. Hearts was a faux documentary on the search for true love featuring Cera and his ex-girlfriend, the incredibly annoying Charlyne Yi. In a fair world, a sloppy, amateurish film like Paper Heart would have never seen the light of day. Because it starred one of the biggest stars around at the time, it was pimped by every major film festival and eventually found its way into theaters.

Paper Heart is the kind of film that separates the men from the boys career wise. Back in the mid 90’s there was a similar small film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and pretty much everyone else in the young Hollywood at the time. That film, Don’s Plum, was blocked from being distributed by DiCaprio. He knew it wasn’t up to the quality of a feature film and would be marketed solely on the names of those involved. That was a smart move by DiCaprio. Paper Heart was adumb move by Cera.

Year One, on the other hand, seemed like a smart move. Directed by comedy legend Harold Ramis and co-starring Jack Black, it must have seemed like a can’t miss prospect. It did miss. It missed by a lot. I don’t think you can blame Cera for the failure, however. He more than held his own with the hyper-kinetic Black. He was funny and likable. The movie just didn’t connect with audiences.

Then the wheels came off. I don’t know what anyone was thinking when they filmed Youth In Revolt. That was one unwatchable movie. It didn’t really matter, because no one did watch it. Opening weekend box-office was just under $7 million and it quickly went downhill from there. The Weinstein Company title ended up with a worldwide total just over $18 million, which most likely barely covered its print costs.

How bad are things for Cera now? Let’s put it this way. Two years ago he was one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. Now he’s only being mentioned for two projects. The long rumored Arrested Development movie that has no script, and Warner Brother’s proposed Gilligan’s Island movie. Who else is rumored for that “all-star” cast? Seth Rogen and Beyonce. That should get the stockholders juices flowing.

I think it’s a little too early to write off Cera’s entire career. He’s only 22 for crying out loud. But, its safe to say he’s in serious trouble. And I think that’s a shame.