“Guess if Michael Cera‘s dead, it’s not a total loss right?” Danny McBride says in probably the funniest moment in the teaser for “This Is The End,” a new apocalyptic comedy starring Cera and McBride along with an all-star roster of mostly Apatow-bred comedians all playing distorted versions of themselves. Though nobody actually wants to see Cera dead, McBride’s sentiment nevertheless registers with a large section of the public who decided a few years ago that they’d had enough of Cera. Despite appearing in just five films from 2008-2010, audiences seemed burned out on his persona – despite changing it up in underseen films like “Youth In Revolt” – and so the damage was done. After a meteoric rise, he seemed to take the hint that he wasn’t necessarily being appreciated in these roles and so he’s been largely absent from screens for the past three years. But between the return of his epochal series “Arrested Development” this spring on Netflix and roles in two films by “The Maid” filmmaker Sebastian Silva, 2013 is the year we must welcome Cera back into our hearts.
“Crystal Fairy” opens with hand drawn, hallucinatory opening credits that set the stage for the drug-fueled road trip to follow. Cera stars as Jamie, an American living in Chile who appears to be down there just to party, hang out and take cool drugs. He goes to a house party with his three buddies, Chilean brothers Champa (Juan Andres Silva), Lel (Jose Miguel Silva) and Pilo (Agustin Silva), and ends up doing a fair amount of coke. The party rages on for a while and Jamie ends up dancing with a equally shaggy looking American who goes by the name of Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann, where have you been!). Crystal is a hippie with a long tangle of hair and hopeless dance moves that leads the inebriated Jamie to dub her “a lonely tornado” before striking up a conversation and inviting her to meet up with him and the brothers on their road trip. On the way home Jamie runs into some transvestite prostitutes on the street and invites them back to his apartment to eat breakfast. As Jamie, Cera is as shaggy looking as he’s ever been, as if he let his Scott Pilgrim haircut just grow wild for another few months, but his character isn’t quite as free spirited as his appearance.
In the cold light of day, the next morning Jamie and the brothers set off on their road trip and he’s horrified to learn from the brothers that he invited Crystal along. For months Jamie has been planning the perfect drug weekend: drive up to find a San Pedro cactus, make mescaline with it, and take it at the beach. And now he doesn’t want an unexpected visitor messing things up (even if he was technically the one who invited her). But it’s too late to turn back and sure enough, Crystal does show up to meet the boys, and her bohemian principles start to cause immediate friction. Champa, Lel and Pilo are largely laid back but Jamie becomes increasingly uptight the more that Crystal tries to derail him. “This is the perfect thing to do right now…is to do mescaline,” he insists after their search to find the cactus proves initially fruitless.
With her eyebrows grown in thick and character largely ungroomed, Hoffmann’s performance is completely without vanity and she spends several long sequences parading around completely nude (which leads Jamie to dub her character Crystal Hairy). But her character isn’t simply the butt of the jokes (though she is that too). As the film goes, on we learn that Crystal might not be quite as committed to her ideals as she may seem, which leads to some unexpectedly poignant turns in the third act. The film is full of oddball touches like swelling dramatic strings accompanying an unwanted phone call, the camera lingering on two dogs fucking in the foreground of a shot (never not funny), and moments of sadness scattered throughout that lend emotional heft to the comedy. One of the most satisfying things about “Crystal Fairy” is that even though the lead character prefers to keep an ironic distance from things, the film itself is completely sincere. It’s about being good to people even when they’re kind of ridiculous.
Based on a real road trip taken by Silva and his brothers, this writer was surprised to learn that the dialogue was 100% improvised from an 11-page outline. Generally, unless you’re a master like Christopher Guest, films without scripts tend to feel like it. While the film is loose, there’s never a moment where you’re taken out of the picture by realizing the actors might not know where they’re heading next. Cera may not have worked as the star of big-budget fare like “Year One” (frankly, would anyone have?), but he’s terrific here, reminding you why he shot up so quickly after “Superbad” and “Arrested Development.” He is an excellent and completely distinctive actor. Part of the reason people seem to turn on any comedian or actor is that what they do becomes too familiar. By bringing his ace comic timing to a slightly darker role, Cera’s talents feel completely fresh again. By the end of this trip, you’ll realize that you’ve missed him, and luckily you won’t have to wait long to see him again. [B]
This is an edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.