Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eisenberg vs. Cera

A couple months ago I first developed a feeling of defensiveness on Jesse Eisenberg's behalf, and when the Eisenberg defensiveness came up again during a second screening of Zombieland, I decided it was time to write about it.

See, I have a friend who thinks Jesse Eisenberg is getting Michael Cera's sloppy seconds. That Eisenberg may, in fact, be "a poor man's Michael Cera."

Allow me to use this space to suggest otherwise. (And to thank that same friend for the Photoshop work on this image, which came out great.)

It all started innocently enough last fall when my friend wrote in an email, after seeing Zombieland, "I thought the Michael Cera kid was good." My recent disenchantment with Cera had already started to build by then, so I felt my hackles go up at this comment, in part because I had appreciated the work of Jesse Eisenberg for years, and thought that was a rather dismissive way to refer to him. My friend clearly did not have the same history with Eisenberg's work, and it was just a throwaway comment, so I didn't say anything. Then he and I recently saw Zombieland again together, and he wondered aloud if Eisenberg's role had originally been written for Cera. That prompted me to action.

I can see where he's coming from on this. Both are rail-thin pipsqueaks who are attractive to women despite not having a single stereotypically macho thing about them, and both generally express themselves in halting, stuttery, neurotic bursts. Both actors are clearly intellectuals, and both most often use their shtick to comic effect.

But give Eisenberg his due. He's been around the block and back.

The first feature for the 26-year-old actor was back in 2002, when he was an 18-year-old playing someone who was supposed to be three or four years younger than that. It was Roger Dodger, in which he played the nephew of Campbell Scott's self-described ladies man. Eisenberg's character ends up punching holes in Scott's philosophies of courtship and male-female dynamics over the course of the narrative, which transpires during one evening in New York City. It was a genuine co-starring role, though the movie was probably not widely seen.

Eisenberg was then part of an ensemble in The Emperor's Club, a surprisingly effective film in which Kevin Kline plays a private school teacher, later that same year. In 2004 he had a small role in M. Night Shyamalan's disastrous The Village. But 2005 was probably his big coming out party, when he was the older son in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, another film that demanded huge things from him in another not-entirely-comedic situation.

Eisenberg next appeared in two small films that I love, but that most people haven't seen -- The Education of Charlie Banks, which Fred Durst directed in 2007 but which only got a theatrical release in 2009, and The Living Wake, which may have actually just gotten a limited theatrical release in the last month or two, though I saw and reviewed it probably two years ago. He was also in a movie called The Hunting Party, which I didn't see. Two thousand nine was the year of two lands for Eisenberg -- Adventureland and Zombieland, only the second of which I actually liked. He has the lead role in David Fincher's The Social Network, playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. That's due out this year.

Michael Cera is nearly five years younger than Eisenberg, not yet 22 years old. However, my friend's philosophy that Eisenberg is getting Cera's rejected roles could still be correct, because Cera is indisputably more famous than Eisenberg. But does he deserve to be?

Despite being younger than Eisenberg, Cera actually came on the scene earlier, busily working in the years 1999 through 2002 playing kids on TV shows, and even in movies (Frequency, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). His actual breakout was later than Eisenberg, however. If you want to consider Eisenberg's breakout to be Roger Dodger in 2002 -- and I admit that's being generous, since the film had a limited release -- then Cera didn't really register himself with most of us for a year after that, appearing as George-Michael Bluth in Arrested Development in the fall of 2003. His character was an instant hit, for all the reasons most people still love him.

Even though the show was a commercial failure and constantly struggled to stay afloat despite heaps of critical praise, Cera's persona became hugely marketable, and a busy film career soon followed. This is where Cera has lost me.

It started when Superbad was considerably less than I was hoping for, especially given the hype. For most people, though, Superbad was an unqualified success, and things only got better for Cera with Juno, released a couple months later at the end of 2007. I too loved Juno, though I'm wondering if it would already not hold up just a couple years later. The Juno backlash has come in the form of retroactive criticism of Diablo Cody's hyper-stylized dialogue, in which every other phrase was cutesy slang like "home skillet."

Since Juno, my personal belief is that it's been nothing but bad decisions for Cera, and the accumulated effect of those decisions has been that I'm over him. Even in just a few movies, his shtick has become over-exposed for me. The first bad decision was Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a bogus contraption which is supposed to speak for the ipod generation, in which his character is actually unlikable. Then there was last year's Year One, which I've already dissed several times (time 1, time 2) on this blog. But perhaps the most singularly annoying of Cera's recent films was last August's pseudo documentary Paper Heart, which I wish I had dissed more than one time, but I only just saw it six weeks ago. In this so-called documentary, Cera plays himself dating unfunny stand-up comedienne Charlyne Yi, but it's a bullshit, constructed version of their real-life romance. It's meant to be indie sweet, but it actually implodes in excess preciousness. Michael Cera playing Michael Cera was one of those saturation-point moments for me, when I realized that his shtick had been commodified almost to the point of parody. Yet they didn't play it that way -- the film was serious and achingly self-indulgent.

I didn't see Youth in Revolt, which came out a couple weeks ago, but I see it's just the first of a slate of films he's scheduled to release this year. So for those of us who are sick of him, we have the chance to become a lot sicker in the coming months.

And it's hard for me to say this about Michael Cera, because he first came to us so adorably, with such a fresh-faced approach that was so effortlessly sympathetic. I think part of the reason I've turned on him is that I've decided he's become disingenuous. Around the time Juno came out, I read an interview in which it sounded like he was talking about getting out of acting, about how he never wanted to be famous and wanted to lead a regular life. I suppose it's possible he really meant that, and then later just decided that fame and money did, in fact, suit him fine. I can't blame him for that, but in retrospect, I feel like there was something intentionally calculating about that supposed disinterest in the trappings of fame, designed to shape his image for us and make us think he was above the fray. To then proceed and make a brainless movie like Year One is the very definition of being in the fray.

Many of you reading this are now wondering what Michael Cera ever did to me, to be on the business end of such a dumpfest. You've probably also noticed that I've spent very little time, relative to that, talking about why I like Eisenberg. And my friend, if he's reading this -- the guy who Photoshopped the image I'm using for this post, mind you -- is probably wondering how an innocuous observation about the similarities between Cera and Eisenberg has inspired me to eviscerate poor Cera on my blog.

Maybe it really is true that you're only as good as your last movie. Or in this case, your last three movies.

I think the ultimate point is that it's not the shtick you're able to develop and market, but what you choose to do with that shtick. If Jesse Eisenberg is, in fact, modeling himself after Michael Cera, he's doing it a lot more smartly. Even though I didn't like Adventureland, I found it to be a better risk and a smarter decision than, say, Year One, which seems like a soulless money grab. And, by the way, Adventureland is only the second of eight Eisenberg films I've seen that I haven't liked, the first being The Village, in which he had a very minor role. The reverse is true for Cera, with Juno dangling out there as the only one of five films I can say, without reservation, that I liked. His percentage goes up when you include Frequency and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he appeared briefly as a younger version of one of the characters. But those don't really count, do they?

And, to my Photoshop friend: That'll teach you to ever make an innocuous comment about something in my presence.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

They are both nebbishy actors who have shown very little range. Michael Cera, however, has really sharp comedic timing while Eisenberg seems more dramatic (maybe cause he always looks like he's about to cry).

I think the problem is that they are essentially the same in every role they play.

Maybe your ire against Cera is because he showed so much promise in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but his shtick is getting old. I don't agree with you on NICK AND NORA. I think it's a charming movie and if you were in your formative tween or teen years, I think you'd feel much differently about that movie.

I don't blame Cera for YEAR ONE either. On paper it seems like a smart move to star in a movie with Jack Black, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Harold Ramis. You can't fault a star for how a movie turns out once they sign their name on the dotted line.

The real test for Cera is going to be SCOTT PILGRIM, which is coming this summer. It's based on a cool comic book and directed by Edgar Wright. We'll see if that tips the scales.

Vancetastic said...

Good points, DGB. We'll agree to disagree about N&N. I do think that raises an interesting point that you are not necessarily raising -- whether age makes a critic (since we're all critics) harder on a movie that they would have connected to differently when they were younger. However, I love The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, so it's certainly not an absolute stance.

I'll grant the point on Year One. The pedigree was definitely good. However, for a guy who was making noises about not liking fame, or whatever he was making noises about, he definitely thrust aside his shrinking violet attitude on that one. He can't have thought it would be a "small movie."

Don Handsome said...

But wouldn’t you say that Cera is ONLY equipped for comedy? I can’t see him pulling off a Baumbach film or a Roger Dodger. I have recently turned on Cera – due in-part to the misery that is Paper hearts and in-part to his over-exposure. I agree with DGB that Cera has great comedic timing – as evidenced by both Arrested Development and Superbad for me – but I think that he lacks the range of Eisenberg. Cera goes out and does his shtick and its mostly all right regardless of the quality of the movie, whereas Eisenberg can fine-tune his chops to what the performance demands of him. Just look at their 2009 films: Cera does Cera in Year One and (literally) in Paper Hearts and both films were awful (surely this isn’t 100% George Michael’s fault, but he has to get some of the blame); Eisenberg actually plays characters in Adventureland (which isn’t as bad as Vance says it is, and has an added level of irony because its directed by Greg Mattola who’s other film is Cera’s Superbad) and in Zombieland and hits a solid double and then a home-run. Eisenberg’s 2009 films show an actor meeting challenges and exceeding expectations, where as Cera’s indicate an entropic former high-school-every-nerd struggling with his 20s. I hope Cera can bounce back and show me another way to view him as an actor, but I’m skeptical. That said, I’m looking forward to both The Social Network (Fincher, not Linklater) and Scott Pilgrim this year but I’m betting Fincher’s film demands more out of its star than Edgar Wright’s does.

Vancetastic said...

And Vance fails on the fact checking again. Thanks for the correction on Fincher vs. Linklater -- I actually thought I should look it up at the time, then didn't. So I will correct it, but keep a record of the mistake here for those who delve into the comments.

Good breakdown of their talents -- I agree with it.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I don't think I'm aware of any of Cera's remarks about fame. All I know that if Judd Apatow came a-knockin' I would answer the call.

Not sure about Eisenberg having more range. He's not that different in Zombieland or Adventureland or Squid and the Whale. It's the movies that are different.

I'm very interested in Scott Pilgrim because at least on the pages of the comic book, the character does not feel very Michael Cera at all.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

And Vance...I do think that sometimes the age can affect the viewing of a movie. If you saw BETTER OFF DEAD today for the first time, do you think you'd like it?