Arrested Development: The Cinema of Michael Cera

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

By Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

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 Except, his baby face no longer represents innocence and childish sentimentalism.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.

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. 

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