In “Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012,” actor Michael Cera smokes pot, snorts cocaine, steals from an elderly lady, takes mescaline and generally acts like a giant jerk to his friends. To call this a departure from the 24-year-old actor’s earlier work would be an understatement.
Known for playing a socially awkward nerd in the soon-to-be-revived TV series “Arrested Development,” as well as in films such as “Juno” and “Superbad,” his role in “Crystal Fairy,” premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a bold and admirable direction for the oft-typecast actor. Here he shows a willingness to break out of his shell, perhaps before the characters he’s most famous for end up becoming permanent.
Written and directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva (who also has another Cera-starring flick at this year’s Sundance called “Magic Magic”), “Crystal Fairy” follows Jamie (Cera), an American who plans a road trip with his friend Champa and his two younger brothers to the Northern part of Chile. There, they’ll go on a spiritual journey by taking mescaline on the beach. Before the adventure begins, Jamie drunkenly invites a carefree hippie named Crystal Fairy (Gabby Hoffman) along for the ride. When he realizes what he’s done the next morning, he immediately regrets the decision as he attempts to ditch her at every turn. But as the trip begins to unfold, the group soon takes the mescaline and experiences a self-described “authentic moment of truth.”
Drugs aside, Cera’s performance -- and the film as a whole -- has much more going for it under the surface. While it could represent a turning point for the actor and the types of roles he plans on taking in the future, it’s important to note that “Crystal Fairy” should not be labeled “The Michael Cera Drug Movie.” As the actor admits in the press notes, the film is “not…about drug use so much as...about denial, and self-recognition.” True, Jamie and his friends really only spend a small portion of the film under the influence, the bulk of the story is devoted to developing each character.
From beginning to end, Cera does his best to shed the on-screen persona he's famous for. Here he’s self-centered, unreasonable and ignorant, only worried about finding the San Pedro cactus (a plant that, when cooked correctly, produces mescaline) and consuming it. While there are times Cera’s known brand of humor pokes through Jamie’s stubbornness, for the most part it takes a backseat, allowing the actor to showcase a different side of himself, and a willingness to work outside the box he’s clearly been comfortable in throughout his career. There is also something strangely endearing about Cera’s Jamie. You want to hate him -- and at times, certainly do -- but generally he comes off as a lost soul, one who is just searching for the perfect moment or experience to help set him free. It’s tough to tell whether this feeling arrives because of the way the character is written or the fact that it’s Michael Cera playing said character. Either way, it’s entertaining and hilarious to see it unfold.
It’s too early to say whether “Crystal Fairy,” along with the aforementioned “Magic Magic,” will really help Cera change the way he's perceived by “Superbad” and “Arrested Development” fans (and with new episodes of “Arrested Development” returning this May, these roles might not even matter). Then again, in the past Cera has made it known that he’s not all that interested in showing off his potential range. “It’s a real game people end up playing with their image,” Cera admitted to New York in 2009, in regards to him being known on screen as the socially awkward adolescent. “That’s really not what’s important to me. It’s just not. And I don’t know how to play that game or understand why people do. It’s just not as fun to me as getting to work with people that you really like.”
This statement, and Cera’s career down the road, brings to mind a reference In “Crystal Fairy.” Here, his character twice refers to Aldous Huxley’s influential “The Doors of Perception,” which chronicles the author’s experience taking mescaline. In the book, Huxley states “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves.” Echoing what the actor said earlier, no matter what we think of Cera’s choice of roles -- whether we complain that he’s only known for playing one type of character or that he doesn’t have the same range other actors do -- perhaps what’s most important here is letting him experience his own journey, and to enjoy the adventure he's currently on.
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