This is the way the story goes in the alternate timeline: “Paper Heart” (2009), the arch and quirky romantic comedy written by and starring Charlene Yi, became the next “Juno” (2007) and earned all the money at the box office. Audiences burst in anticipation for “Youth in Revolt” (2009) and swooned over its male lead’s newly revealed depth and maturity. Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) was a smash hit. It launched a series of sequels while, paradoxically, also inspiring Hollywood to abandon sequels and superhero adaptations. In came a new era where Hollywood took risks on unknown properties and produced scripts that barely even whispered “blockbuster.”
No matter how much I admire the frenetic, original and actually clever “Scott Pilgrim,” the alternate timeline is not better, and it may even prove much worse than the status quo. There was something troubling about “Scott Pilgrim” star Michael Cera, circa 2009. He wasn’t growing as an actor — but he also wasn’t not-growing in the way that most actors not-grow. The weight of past performances makes it harder and harder to get cast in anything that isn’t a repetition of those performances. Audiences love to see their favorite actors play their favorite roles again and again. Everyone eventually becomes a character actor, even movie stars. Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” is Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality.” It’s why the movie is so popular.
Michael Cera, however, was not-growing as an actor in the worst possible way: He was trying and failing. Cera probably had another year to play the lost puppy/stunted youth. I would have happily followed Nick from “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” to Berklee College of Music. But he decided to change and to be more ambitious. Unfortunately, he was only somewhat ambitious: He took on characters that were his logical next steps and natural evolutions. He smirked 20% less. He added more angst. It was neither the radical change he needed nor the stasis we wanted. It was a disappointment, that’s all.
Now Cera’s done what he needed to do before. He’s taking on challenging roles, like the lead in “Crystal Fairy,” and he’s savaging his best-loved ones. Season 4 of “Arrested Development” contorts George Michael Bluth and “This Is the End” aggressively mocks his nice guy image. He’s getting a lot of media attention for this growth and development.
Which terrifies me. Michael Cera directed an interesting and well thought-out short film, “Brazzaville Teen-ager,” and, more recently, a light-though-engaging sketch, “Failure.” He showed an unexpected talent for managing actors and coaxing performances. “Brazzaville” in particular is guided by a clear aesthetic vision. The shots are beautifully composed and rarely indulgent. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to see what else the filmmaker can do. You want to see him try to make longer movies and more anarchic ones, more personal ones. Mainly you just want more: more time in his world, more time hearing that voice. I don’t want Michael Cera-the-actor to get in the way of Michael Cera-the-director.
“The Brazzaville Teen-ager” is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, the Jewish American writer most famous for “Stern.” The plot is simple: Gunther (Cera) has a father in the hospital. He believes his father — whom he’s never bonded with — is dying. Somehow he gets the idea that he can save his father’s life if he can get his boss to perform back-up vocals on a Kelis song.
Friedman’s story is sparsely detailed. He invites us to wonder why Gunther thinks the way he does. It’s a story for the mind, not for the eye or even the ear. We spend half the story with the boss, but we don’t learn how he looks.
Cera adapts the material. We’re unmistakably still in Friedman’s world, but now it’s in technicolor. The first meeting with the boss is a terrific visual joke. Cera and his art directors dressed him in a black suit, with a white shirt buttoned up to the top — no tie. He also cast a man with a luminous full head of white hair.
He made the boss look like David Lynch.
There are reasons for this beyond a quick wink and a nod. There’s an unexplained strangeness to the boss character, a coldness that isn’t quite fathomable. Yoking the boss to Lynch at least makes his oddity somewhat explicable.
But the biggest reason is hidden in one of the changes Cera and Friedman (who co-wrote the screenplay) made to the story’s text. In the story, the father remarks how strange it is that doctors think nothing of treating and ordering around people much older than themselves. “I told him and he laughed, but it didn’t bother him,” the father says in Friedman’s version. In the film, the father ends this dialogue: “…He sees the comedy.”
It’s a small change, but one no less jarring for its subtlety. Coming right at the beginning of the short, this is Cera’s meta-statement on how he wants to direct. Like Lynch, he’s drawn to the bizarre and strange. And also like (some) Lynch, Cera wants us to see the comedy in these bizarre unsatisfying encounters, and strange, crooked people who don’t think — or act — like we do. Cera is smart enough to learn from Lynch, just as he’s smart enough to learn from Friedman. The “Brazzaville Teen-Ager” may be about declaring independence from forerunners, from parents and from past roles, but it’s the independence that comes from finding your place in a world that already exists, a world that already had people developing similar themes and ideas.
Not all the adaptations work. The short’s last shot of the film is too clever and too meticulous. But it’s worth sharing and discussing one other moment, a moment that could have easily been too showy. We watch as the boss hears his voice, hearing it for the first time ourselves. The boss is largely stoic, somewhere between mortified by what he’s hearing and in interested in hearing.
His eyes are almost doleful, almost beautiful. The lip quivers slightly, delicately inviting us behind the eyes.
This is the look of a boxer about to take a punch to the face. This is the look that shows why Michael Cera needs to direct more movies.
Watch ‘Brazzaville Teen-Ager’: