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.