Arrested Development: The Cinema of Michael Cera

Over two decades of roles in landmark independent films and blockbusters, Cera has moved from awkward sweetheart to sullen millennial.
Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023).

Michael Cera plays Allan, a milquetoast companion to Ryan Gosling’s Ken, in the recent billion-dollar blockbuster Barbie (2023). The film’s narrator, Helen Mirren, introduces Allan by stating he is “unique” and noting “there are no multiples of him.” The same could be said of the actor behind the mild-mannered doll. Cera’s status as a sometimes endearing, sometimes discomforting, but always awkward screen presence has made him a fixture of commercial cinema ever since his famed turn as a sexually naïve cross-country star in Jason Reitman’s teenage pregnancy drama Juno (2007). Sixteen years later, Cera’s complexion remains the same. Except, his baby face no longer represents innocence and childish sentimentalism. His recent credits have skewed toward portrayals of frustrated men, revealing unforeseen dimensions of his previously exhibited acting chops.

Cera’s rise to stardom in the mid-'00s coincided with the release of films such as Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2007), and the aforementioned Juno (2007). These relatively low-budget films made effective use of eccentric flourishes in their dialogue and mise-en-scène to elevate otherwise standard coming-of-age narratives. “The theory is that we’ll bring in style,” said Little Miss Sunshine director Valerie Faris about her and co-director Jonathan Dayton’s approach to filmmaking in an interview with The New York Times following the film’s splash Sundance premiere in 2006. “And speak to the youth,” adds Dayton later in the interview. 

These films’ fantastic representation of life’s minor dramas through the banalization of idiosyncratic characters and over-the-top production design appealed to audiences at the time, yielding all of the films’ previously mentioned incredible profits. Cera’s trademark quirks as a performer—his awkward Mona Lisa stare, de facto hesitancy in speech, and stilted gait—combined with his distinctive physiognomy and lanky physique made him a perfect conduit for the strange behavior and overwritten banter required for this genre. There was a symbiotic relationship between Cera and the quirky mid-'00s films he became synonymous with; their aesthetic contrivances reinforced the sublime awkwardness of his act, while said act awarded the films verisimilitude.

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007).

In Juno, Cera plays Paulie Bleeker, the eponymous character’s main love interest. His performance builds off the nice-guy persona he honed to perfection during Arrested Development’s initial run from 2003 to 2006. While the TV sitcom paired his polite demeanor with more unusual interests—chiefly his character’s sexual attraction to his cousin—Juno frames his politeness as a sign of his character’s immaturity. The sense of calm Cera brings to Bleeker reveals a teenager out of touch with his reality. He lives according to rituals—track and field training in the morning, school during the day, homework in the evening—in order to avoid confronting the fact that he got his girlfriend pregnant. Bleeker’s believability hinges on his childishness, which screenwriter Diablo Cody accentuates by having him sleep in a racecar bed surrounded by space-themed wallpaper. Cera’s soft-spokenness and general look of confusion throughout the film works in counterpoint to the presence-demanding nature of Cody’s aggressively snarky script, isolating the importance of sweetness as the key to overcoming life’s hurdles in a quirked-up world. 

The success of Juno was followed by Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist the next year. Based on a YA novel of the same name, the film starred Cera as a lovesick drummer coerced by his bandmates into playing a show where he ends up finding a new romantic partner. “Against all odds, Michael Cera is a teenage heartthrob, en route to the pantheon with Ricky Nelson, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Cassidy,” wrote Sarah Ball in a Newsweek article following the film's release. Like in Juno, he demonstrates a preference for mumbling over proper enunciation, and his every other sentence stops halfway, as though overwhelmed by timidity, or distracted by the actor’s genuine wonder at the world around him. Despite his propensity for emotional paralysis in the face of unforeseen events, Cera’s eyes are always moving, conveying an endless curiosity about a world alien to his being. This doe-eyed quality pits him against the muscular jocks and misunderstood loners Hollywood has historically favored as teenage heartthrobs. In the context of the mid-'00s, he emerges as a paragon example of the awkward American teen with aspirations of musical stardom held over from the underground rock boom of the 1980s.

The use of songs by Belle & Sebastian, Vampire Weekend, and other indie sensations from the era in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Juno contextualize how a dork with a heart of gold such as Cera could become a somewhat popular sensation. Despite those bands' disparate thematic interests and styles, their looks throughout the 2000s were uniform: shaggy hair, cheap sunglasses, and your choice of solid crumpled button-downs or tight t-shirts. These aesthetic markers were central to Cera’s screen persona; his quiet singing and gentle guitar-strumming in Juno mirrored those bands’ hushed vocals and sentimental lyricism. The films he starred in, the clothes he wore, and the music his characters listened to all codified the aesthetic of “indie.” As far as filmmaking went, although the term had been associated with a diverse range of cult movies made without institutional support during the '90s—Slackers (1990), Clerks (1994), The Blair Witch Project (1999)—by the mid-'00s it could invoke a set of conventions: quirky characters, playful art design, and pointed needle drops.

Having played virtually the same character in Juno and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Cera cemented himself as a cornerstone of calm in hit movies that drew their comedy from unpredictable scenarios. This becomes exceedingly clear in Superbad, the 2007 teen comedy penned by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Because of the film’s reliance on raunchy humor and expletive-driven dialogue, Cera’s shy turn as Evan delivers a genuinely sweet character, one who just so happens to be caught up with the wrong crowd. In one of Superbad’s more memorable scenes, he sings “Crying Every Night (These Eyes)” in front of a group of muscular, cocaine-sniffing jocks. Although his pitch wavers, his commitment to the song’s lovelorn ache saves him from getting beat up for crashing a party he wasn’t invited to. The sincerity he brings to unconfident characters by embracing their nervousness when talking, walking, or singing has always resulted in his funniest and most heartfelt roles. It is for this reason that his cultural imprint on the hearts and minds of American viewers during this time period would be that of the dependable, harmless, and lovable dork. Financially, it represented a win for Cera, but existentially, it seemed he was careening toward a crisis. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010).

In a conversation between Cera and his Superbad co-star Jonah Hill published by Vulture in 2018, Cera admitted to struggling with his trajectory as an actor during his early 20s and feeling as though nothing “made a lot of sense to [him] about the way [his] life was configured.” While trying to build his own life, he found himself butting up against the public’s fixed understanding of him. “I had this very sudden exposure to people knowing who I was, which made everything even more confusing just on a day-to-day, existing basis,” says Cera in the interview.

It was around this time that he starred in a series of films that presented him as a bad boy. The Miguel Arteta-directed Youth in Revolt (2009) sees Cera as Nick Twisp, a horny high-schooler from Oakland who falls in love with Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a teenage Francophile from a nearby trailer park. Unlike Cera’s previous love interests, Saunders is not attracted by Twisp’s timidity, and demands he do “very bad things” in order to win her over. The film resolves this by splitting Twisp in two à la Fight Club and having his Frenchified alter-ego François Dillinger (Cera fronting adulthood with a feathery mustache and slicked-back hair) nonchalantly commit arson and grand theft auto while Twisp is left to deal with the aftermath.

One year later, Cera took the lead in Edgar Wright’s graphic-novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In the film, the actor plays a 22-year-old Canadian bass player who dumps a 17-year-old schoolgirl (Ellen Wong) for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a new-in-town manic pixie dream girl who rollerblades around Toronto and changes the neon color of her hair every week. Cera's wandering gaze and soft speech take on a new meaning within the context of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In playing up both performance habits, his character appears both dismissive and insulted, as though he genuinely believes the world is out to get him even before Flowers’s evil exes start attacking him. Here, his signature doe-eyed naïveté evokes the look of a puppy: tender but manipulative. Yet, Cera’s inherent charm paired with Wright’s decision to pass his flaws off as quirks preserved his status as the dominant cinema’s socially inept idol, rather than an actor with an untapped capacity for playing unsympathetic characters. 

Only by exiting the northern hemisphere did the actor escape America’s understanding of him. Cera underwent a transformation in 2013 when his two collaborations with Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva—Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic—were released. He traded his wispy hair for a disheveled mess and his mellow attitude for an in-your-face irritability, making the real-life jump from Nick Twisp to François Dillinger. 

In Crystal Fairy, he takes on the role of Jamie, a self-centered expat seeking purpose through psychedelics in faraway Chile. As Kristi Mitsuda wrote in her review for Reverse Shot, the film allowed Cera to show off an “unexpected” side to his “obliviously adorable moppet act” by playing “an obliviously assholish millennial.” His decision to raise his voice above his distinctive falsetto reveals a whinier side to his speech pattern which he pats with recurrent scoffs and groans. When the free-spirited Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) is introduced as his foil—her superficial interest in chakras going against Jamie’s hard-line belief in psychedelics as a source of enlightenment—he becomes aggressively annoying. While Cera might have played annoying in a more reserved fashion a few years earlier, he revels in the insult-hurling, frowning, and stomping this role offers him. The film’s titular manic pixie dream girl not falling in love with him—an impossibility in his previous films—suggests that a new Cera is on the horizon, one with the potential to offend, and who is not kind but abrasive.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (Sebastián Silva, 2013).

In 2014, Time Out Magazine ran a profile on the actor titled “The New Michael Cera,” with an accompanying subheadline that read, “The spotlight-shy It boy is all grown up, with a new home (Brooklyn), no-more-mister-nice-guy roles and a hotly anticipated Broadway debut.” The transformation had been foretold by Cera’s cameo in This Is the End (also released in 2013) as a fictionalized version of himself with an inflated ego. But while This Is the End framed his performance as a subversive trick in opposition to his storied nice-guy persona, Silva’s decision to have Cera play an entitled expat in South America legitimized his potential for playing contemptible characters. As Alex, an assertive acting coach in Janicza Bravo’s Lemon (2017), Cera comports himself with confidence to terrorize his lame pupil (a smug Brett Gelman). His self-possessed sense of cool manifests itself in his straight posture, calm hand motions as he toys with cigarettes, and furrowed brows whenever he approaches a conversation. Framed against Gelman’s act as a clumsy schlub, Cera’s elegant gestures appear villainous. This cockier side of Cera disrupts the common understanding of him as a performer; his once-accepted nice-guy persona was eroded by roles like Wally Brando in Twin Peaks: The Return, in which he dons a black leather biker suit to deliver a melancholy monologue in the style of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).

In the recently released The Adults (2023)—his second collaboration with Dustin Guy Defa—Cera emerges as an oxymoron in the role of Eric. His face conveys both the cherubic features associated with his earlier roles and an encroaching ruggedness that befits his character’s gambling habits and pent-up grief, as well as the generally weathered disposition he brings to his more recent roles. Defa’s decision to have Eric act out imaginary characters he came up with as a child by putting on absurd accents emphasizes the dichotomy present in Cera’s face, a misalignment between his popularity as a sweet teenage heartthrob and his increasingly bitter onscreen presence. 

The multiple meanings inscribed on his face are easier to decipher in Kristoffer Borgli’s whimsical Dream Scenario (2023) in which he plays Trent, the CEO of Thoughts, a PR firm that pairs Z-list celebrities with potential corporate clients. He is introduced wearing a pink polo and baby blue baseball cap while sitting at the head of a long wooden table opposite a wall displaying his company logo, emblazoned on it in multiple colors in a Times-New-Roman-esque font. The scene is all too familiar, as it emblematizes the generic minimalism of millennial corporate-dom—previously imagined in the Google comedy The Internship (2013) and the more recent Apple TV+ mini-series WeCrashed (2022). With Cera at the helm of Thoughts, Borgli offers a vision of the grown-up corporate millennial: uncreative and commanding. This image takes the trajectory of Cera’s early characters from quirky kids to quirky professionals: a journey that coincides with his own course as a performer who lived through the excitement of the mid-'00s “indie” film boom and its unavoidable corporatization, all the while keeping a straight face.

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Michael CeraGreta GerwigJason ReitmanPeter SollettMiguel ArtetaEdgar WrightSebastián SilvaJanicza BravoDustin Guy DefaKristoffer Borgli
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