Michael Cera: Indie Cinema’s leading man and your favourite Melancomic
The noughties cinematic era saw an influx of indie comedy cult classics, with raunchy comedies such as Superbad (2007), Knocked Up (2007) and Pineapple Express (2008) and charming rom-coms like Juno (2007) and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) rising to the top of box-office charts and having a lasting impression on audiences. The successes of these films can often be attributed to the growing favour of teen comedies at the time, and also the acting styles and popularity of the actors that were dominant in this cinematic era. From these, Toronto-born actor Michael Cera established a well-entrenched career, which can be attributed to the way he presents his characters, and his ‘embodiment of difference and otherness’ (Thomas, 2013).
Following a childhood stint in voice acting and a break-out role as George Michael Bluth in Fox sitcom Arrested Development (2003), Michael Cera’s appearances in mid to late noughties films gained him a large and engaged following that still upholds today. His comedic timing and cynical style of acting is celebrated by both critics and audiences alike, and has led to the successes of his career since then. Cera’s acting style is familiar to the ‘melancomic’ style detailed by Deborah J. Thomas in her aptly named article “Framing the ‘melancomic’ [..]’ (2012). Often playing shy, ‘nerdy’ teenage characters who find themselves in situations way out of their depth, Michael Cera delivers his lines with a “deadpan, disaffected fashion”. Keeping this acting style and comedic attitude relatively across the board in his more popular film roles has allowed him to become an observed and recognized pillar of indie comedy cinema spheres and in Hollywood in general.
‘Melancomic’, a term popularised by Deborah J. Thomas, is the concept of “unorthodox” styles of comedy from certain actors and in certain cinematic spheres. While often applied to the sombre, realistic acting seen in Wes Anderson films, the term can be applied to more mainstream film and mainstream stars, such as Michael Cera. The comic relief of an “idiosyncratic” character with a peculiar and individual comedy style that is portrayed with a “gentle irony” as a contrast to loud, brash and overtly witty and comedic characters is something that is very prevalent in noughties comedies. Alongside Michael Cera in every role there is a loud character to offset his shyness and elevate his comedy. His work, while still received as overtly comedic, embodies that of a naturally awkward teenage boy — which is mostly the roles he is cast in.
In 2007, Cera sprung to screens in two extremely well-appreciated roles; Superbad, directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and Juno directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Both films amassed cultural status and are recognised as two of the most popular films of the year, and of the decade in general. Juno depicts the story of a sixteen-year-old school girl named Juno MacGuff (Elliot Page) falling unexpectedly pregnant after sleeping with her long time close-friend and track runner, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). The film follows the trials and tribulations of her coming to terms with pregnancy, adoption and love. In Juno, Cera’s character, Bleeker, plays as a shy, mild-mannered and confused sixteen-year-old-boy who finds it hard to comprehend what’s happened between him and Juno, and to communicate his feelings. Alongside Elliot Page as Juno, Cera’s character epitomises the awkward struggles of a teenager whose been told life-changing news — such as pregnancy — and has no means of dealing with it.
Bleeker’s “delicate timidity” (Shary, 2014) is exemplified by Cera’s unassuming, inexpressive acting in a later scene in the film when Juno, after experiencing hardship throughout the film, meets Bleeker at their school’s athletic track — after buying him masses of his favourite treat, orange Tic Tacs — to tell him she loves him. In retaliation to Juno admitting she “thinks [she’s] in love with [Bleeker]” because of the fact that he’s “the coolest person [she’s] ever met, and [he] doesn’t even have to try”, Bleeker meekly says “I try really hard, actually”. While this line is seemingly just a simple and kind response from a kind character, the undertones are actually quite comedic. Much like the aforementioned ‘melancomic’ trope, Bleeker’s character offsets Juno’s quick-wit with slow and small sentences, allowing the viewer to laugh at the undertones of his lines. The idea that he “[tries] really hard, actually” to be cool is synonymous with the teenage experience, which is ultimately the message of the film — the relatability of teenage lives. Bleeker’s character exemplifies the ‘awkward lanky teenage boy’ allegory exceptionally well, and Michael Cera’s quiet and introverted acting style fits within the role of Bleeker and even more widely in the sphere of Indie comics, specifically in the noughties cinematic era.
Later in 2007, Superbad was released, gaining quick critical acclaim and positive reception from audiences. Superbad details two best friends, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) as they navigate the closing weeks of their senior year, before they go to different colleges. Along with their friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), their main objective throughout the film is to get alcohol for a party that the girl Seth likes, Jules (Emma Stone) is throwing. This lays out the main foundations of the film, and epitomizes the idea that there is a “discrepancy between the adult behaviour the teens they wish to engage in, and the restrictions placed upon then by their age […]” (Cann, Horton. 2015) that is so often seen in teen films. While Hill plays a sex-obsessed, dirty-minded typical teenage boy, Cera plays alongside as the sweeter, logically minded friend, who wants to get the attention of his crush, Becca (Martha MacIsaac). A similar character to Bleeker, Superbad’s Evan acts as the calmer, more approachable sidekick to their explosive, extroverted counterparts. While Seth is outwardly comedic in both his lines and delivery, Evan retaliates with maturity and sarcasm, often with a worried or sad expression on his face, symbolic of the “perceptible, but gentle irony” of the melancomics described by Deborah Thomas.
A pivotal scene in Superbad depicts the three protagonists standing outside a grocery store, discussing how they’re going to get the alcohol they promised Jules for her party. After being unimpressed with Fogell’s “McLovin” fake ID, Seth takes it upon himself to try and get the alcohol. While he attempts this, Fogell and Evan stand outside, with Fogell bringing up his upcoming moving in with Evan at Dartmouth College once Seth is barely out of earshot. Typical to Michael Cera’s acting style, he acts incredibly nervously, continuously telling Fogell to “shut the f*ck up”, while looking at him with a panicked look on his face as he doesn’t want Seth to know he’s moving in with Fogell to spare his feelings. While his repeated berating of Fogell to “shut the f*ck up” is barely comedic, and more just a representation of how teenagers talk to each other, he ends the conversation with “and take off your vest. You look like Aladdin’. This singular line almost perfectly exemplifies Cera’s acting style combined with his melancomic attitude to comedy. The pained, exasperated tone portrays the idea that he’s not actually trying to be funny — making him all the more comedic. Cera’s characters are known for being rather shy and timid, but coming out with one-liners that are often well-remembered by audiences.
Michael Cera’s popularity in mid-to-late noughties cultural and cinematic spheres can be assumed to be as a result of the ways in which he presented his character in these cult classic films. His representations of Juno’s Paulie Bleeker, and Evan in Superbad have had lasting effects on audiences due to their differences among the rest of the film’s characters. His shy, reserved, ‘melancomic’ approach to his work has allowed for audiences to favour his characters, even years after the release of the films, and amass a cult following alongside it. Indeed, while the approaches to comedic conventions in film are changing from the brash, raunchy and absurd comedy we see in Superbad, and ‘quaint’ indie rom-coms such as Juno, Michael Cera’s character development and stabilisation throughout the prime of his film career has seen a new type of ‘melancomic’ into popular cinematic spheres, introducing the concept to popular genres rather than confining it to superficially indie films like the work of Wes Anderson, where it is often claimed to be found.
Arrested Development (2003). [TV Programme]. Fox
Cann, V. & Horton, E. (2015) Transition, Crisis and Nostalgia: Youth Masculinity and Postfeminism in Contemporary Hollywood, an Analysis of Superbad. Boyhood studies. [Online] 8 (2), 5–24.
Deborah J. Thomas (2012) Framing the ‘melancomic’: character, aesthetics
and affect in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. New Review of Film and Television Studies. pp97.117
Juno (2007). Directed by Jason Reitman. Fox Searchlight Pictures Distribution.
Knocked Up (2007). Directed by Judd Apatow. Universal Pictures Distribution.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008). Directed by Peter Sollett. Sony Pictures Releasing Distribution.
Pineapple Express (2008). Directed by David Gordon Green. Sony Pictures Releasing Distribution.
Shary, T. (2014) Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema since 1980. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press
Superbad (2007). Directed by Greg Mottola. Sony Pictures Releasing Distribution.
Thomas S. (2013) ‘Marginal moments of spectacle’: Character Actors, Cult Stardom and Hollywood Cinema. In: Egan K., Thomas S. (eds) Cult Film Stardom. London, Palgrave Macmillan. pp37–54.