As elusive as he is talented, there are few actors in Hollywood whose filmography from such an early age is as exceptional and varied as Michael Cera’s. As a child, the Canadian actor began his work on Tim Horton’s and Pillsbury commercials before he eventually landed a few minor roles on bigger films. Upon seeing Cera in a TV pilot, Mitchell Hurtwitz, the creator of Arrested Development, admitted that he was taken aback by the actor’s seemingly effortless comedic skills. In fact, he didn’t even realize if Cera’s eccentric on-screen presence was done on purpose. Hurwitz said it best, “You can’t tell with Michael Cera, he’s such a good actor.”
From witty sitcoms like Arrested Development to moodier dramas like Gloria Bell, Cera has proven his ability to depart from the typecast lovable dork to transformative, complex, and multidimensional characters. Displaying incredible range, the actor often uses his darkly comedic style to bring levity to heavy scenes. Although he’s been in the industry since childhood, Cera is normally far from the spotlight and certainly one to keep his private life a secret. Since Cera has (thankfully) made an exciting return to television as John, Amy Schumer’s love interest in her new Hulu series Life & Beth, it’s worth taking a look at the actor’s most fascinating performances in film and television.
Arrested Development (2003-2019)
A series that would not have been remotely the same without Cera’s delightful awkwardness, Arrested Development is one of the rare series that stands the test of time not solely because of its exceptional writing, but because of a spectacularly well-chosen cast. In Cera’s breakout performance as the timid, responsible George Michael, he won over audience hearts throughout each of the show’s 5 seasons, and brought forth a fascinating character arc (not just from his transformation into George Maharis).
It’s not solely Cera’s impeccable delivery or the way he stumbles over his words, it’s his ability to make every scene in the series feel painstakingly real. In an interview, Hurwitz said that when he was writing the character of George Michael, he didn’t want to make him the cliché nerd that had been seen on television so many times. Indeed, Cera possesses the ability to swerve these stereotypes, instead embracing a deadpan delivery mixed with blank, innocent expressions. Hurwitz admits about Cera influencing the character, “I think he inspired me more than I give him credit for.” George Michael was eventually shaped around Cera’s personal style of humor, and as a result, his character is one of the most memorable in television.
A film that was called 2007’s most successful comedy, the widely beloved Superbad is a coming of age film that follows two teenagers desperate to have one last night of fun before heading off to college. Built on a brilliant script that writing duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had been working on since (and had been inspired by) their own adolescence, the project was lucky enough to find Jonah Hill and Michael Cera at the helm. In an interview with Seth Rogen, the writer mentioned his and Goldberg’s eagerness to portray the idea that there are some teenagers who don’t fit into any of the typical “cliques” in high school.
Indeed, Cera is able to become this chameleon; he morphs between groups, never overly charming and yet, never unlikeable. Everything in his monotonous delivery of, “That’s disgusting, you’re like an animal,” in response to Seth’s raunchy comments, and the goofy moments with his Home Economics partner, Cera hits the exact marks that Rogen described. Cera conveys what is perhaps one of the coming-of-age genre’s most realistic performances of adolescent awkwardness. From the darting eyes whenever he talks to his crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) to the slightly hunched over stature, everything about his performance is painfully real.
It’s the comedy that got the recognition it deserved, bringing home a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award out of four nominations, including Best Picture. If Arrested Development and Superbad hadn’t put Cera on the map yet as an established actor, Juno certainly did. A film that in its time was often dubbed terms like “offbeat” and “quirky”, it only makes sense that an actor like Cera would’ve fit the bill as track runner Paulie Bleeker.
Paulie, like Juno (Elliot Page), is a complicated character. He struggles to accept the concept of imminent fatherhood while trying to bury his evident feelings for Juno, all while dealing with pressure from his school and family. Cera possesses an inexplicable charm throughout Juno that hadn’t been so prevalent in his previous films. There are moments in his expression that you can see the conflict in his character, as he tries to find reasons to be angry at Juno but knows he can’t. The insecurity and pain bubbles to the surface and eventually makes for an unforgettably sweet ending between him and Juno.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)
The mid-late 2000s seemed to be a real golden age for charming, understated indie flicks, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist potentially set this precedent. While Cera at this point was known for his more abashed, insecure characters, this Peter Solett film based on the popular novel sees him in a more mature role. Thanks to the unparalleled chemistry between Kat Dennings and Cera, the film received wide critical acclaim and premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
Nick, a romantic bass player in New Jersey, is hell-bent on winning back his ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dzenia). However, his plans are diverted when he forms an unexpected bond with the charming Norah (Kat Dennings). In an indie teenage rom-com, Cera might’ve been the clear casting choice, but he brings something completely new and unprecedented to his character. Often moving between moments of hopelessness, arrogance, and vulnerability in the blink of an eye, Cera’s character, like most adolescents, is hard to read. Throughout the film, Cera manages to capture the unpredictability of teen angst in the most realistic way.
Youth in Revolt (2009)
A film that flew under the radar, Youth in Revolt puts Cera together with the witty Portia Doubleday, (known for her portrayal of Angela in USA’s Mr. Robot). Another book adaptation that centers around a teenage romance, the film benefits from an incredible cast, including iconic actors Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, and Ray Liotta. Cera plays Nick, an awkward and shy teenager, who, upon meeting Sheeni (Doubleday), decides he must rebel against society to win her over.
Perhaps the best part of the film is Cera’s transformation as he finds himself torn between the old Nick and a new, defiant alter ego named François. In the beginning, his frailty and insecure body language are almost reminiscent of the early days of George Michael. However, as the film progresses, and as his alter ego François starts to influence him, he becomes a more risk-taking version of himself. Everything from his stature to the way he talks shifts, making for an unexpectedly sweet character arc.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Following the immense success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, a new and completely different film for Edgar Wright appeared. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World displays an incredibly funny cast fronted by Cera himself, and was hailed by filmmaker Kevin Smith as “bringing a comic book to life”. While Cera had been established in more situational, improv-style comedies, this vibrant comedy, with Wright’s trademark fast camera movements, physical humor, and rapid dialogue, presented a new type of comedic role for the actor.
Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a slacker in a band who falls in love with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a local delivery girl. However, upon learning about Ramona’s seven evil exes, he must defeat each of them in order to be with her. Cera’s comedic range is well established in the genre-defying film, elevating each scene with a mix of charming wit and sardonic humor. It’s no wonder Cera’s dry delivery of, “I was thinking we should break up, or whatever,” has made the line so iconic.
Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus (2013)
In a film that truly solidified Cera’s range, Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus finds the actor immersing himself in an entirely new character. The comedy-drama, which includes elements of surrealism, is a gem that received well-deserved recognition at the Sundance Film Festival. While everything about the film, from Gaby Hoffman’s performance to the breathtaking shots of Chilean landscapes is a delight, it is Cera who cements the film as a timeless watch.
Cera is perhaps at his most unlikeable here as Jamie, a pompous American looking to score drugs as he embarks on a road trip with a group of friends. However, as arrogant and brutish as he is, he manages a way to make audiences root for him until the very end. While on the page, Jamie’s character might seem simply obnoxious and loudmouthed, Cera found something more interesting in his character. When he talks to the other boys on the road trip, he almost jogs to keep up, often raising his voice to be heard. He doesn’t just want to find drugs for the group; he is desperate to be liked. Everything from his tone of voice to his body language cements this as the desperation and insecurity radiate from the screen. If there’s a performance by Cera that warrants more accolades, it would be this one.
This pitch-black comedy, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is an intoxicating, existential portrait of a washed-up comedian as he tours the underbelly of the American southwest. Neil Hamburger (a satirical character developed by comedian Gregg Turkington in the 90s, and designated The Comedian in the film) performs in seedy venues in the middle of nowhere, trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Although Cera is in the film only briefly, he transcends as Tommy, a young man that The Comedian encounters at a rest stop on the road. The actor’s chilling demeanor fits the tone of the film perfectly.
When Tommy encounters The Comedian, things immediately become uncomfortable as he asks him to sleep in his car. Cera’s mouth twitches like he’s fighting back words, his eyes blood-shot like he’s about to cry. He speaks quickly and uncomfortably. Even his hunched body language expresses more than any dialogue could say like there’s something he’s hiding. Is Tommy sinister? It’s nearly impossible to tell. “It’s warmer in here. Don’t you think it is?” Cera’s tone goes from friendly to brooding in just a matter of a few unsettling seconds. Director Rick Alverson knows exactly how to use Cera’s ability to combine dark humor to convey a disconcerting, lost man.
Gloria Bell (2018)
In Sebastian Lileo’s remake of the drama simply titled Gloria, the Chilean director crafted an impeccable lineup when casting the American version, Gloria Bell. Julianne Moore is the titular character, a middle-aged divorcee who spends her nights dancing and trying to find love before she eventually learns to be happy on her own. At its core, the film is about family, and each scene between Moore and Cera, her gentle-mannered yet frustrated son, Peter, is layered, complex, and fascinating.
Similar to Entertainment, Cera is not at the forefront of Gloria Bell, yet he steals each scene he’s in with his dry wit. His sarcastic delivery makes every scene funnier and still translates when he’s off-screen. “You guys look happier now,” he says in a sardonic tone off camera as his divorced parents awkwardly smile next to their old wedding photo. The film has subtle, layered moments of dark comedy, and requires actors who can deliver this unique tone. Thankfully, Lileo found Cera, who breathes life into the story.
‘Life & Beth’ Renewed for Season 2 on Hulu
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