Michael Cera cut his teeth as George Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development,” acting alongside one of the best comedic straight men of his generation, Jason Bateman (“Ozark”). By the time “Superbad” introduced the younger actor to mainstream audiences, it seemed like some of Bateman’s gift for po-faced wit had rubbed off on Cera. The opening credits, which feature brightly-colored silhouettes of Cera and co-star Jonah Hill (“Maniac”) dancing in the style of a ’70s porn film cement this: Hill’s dancing is animated and confident, while Cera’s is more reserved. On more than one occasion, Hill stops Cera to demonstrate how the job is really done.
It’s an early glimpse into the relationship that defines the film. Cera is far from the buttoned-down introvert stereotype that most comedies would have rendered Evan as, but he’s still restrained in comparison to Hill’s Seth and spends a good deal of “Superbad,” or at least the first half, reacting to his friend’s insane quest to lose his virginity. It would have been easy to turn the performance into a perpetually raised eyebrow and shaken head, but Evan is so much more than that in the same way “Superbad” is so much more than a typical romp. In Cera’s hands, he becomes the perfect straight man for the perfect teen sex comedy.
Much of what works about the performance can be traced to what works about the film as a whole. It allows him to be hilarious — “Fuck off, Greg, it’s soccer. It’s soccer” — but it also treats Evan as a fully-formed character, giving Cera space to portray a believable emotional struggle. For all the weird, outlandish crap that they get into over a single night, Evan and Seth always feel like real teenagers with a real friendship. They talk like real teenagers, overanalyze every social interaction like real teenagers and do nothing but try to prove to themselves and others that they’re adults, like real teenagers. They clearly love each other even before they say it out loud — a fact that is never played for laughs, a rarity even now, over 10 years later — and they’re wondering what life is going to be like without each other, just like teenagers.
When they fall out, it’s a genuinely heartbreaking scene, and Cera doesn’t pull his punches. Most of the scene is Evan rebuking Seth, as the former wants to mature but isn’t sure how to reconcile that with their friendship, and the latter doesn’t want to grow up if it means losing their closeness. By the end of the movie, both will have been confronted with the flaws in their thinking. Seth has to grow up and own his immaturity in his interactions with Jules (Emma Stone, “Maniac”), and a drunk-out-of-his-mind Evan must depend on Seth in order to “escape” the police. Much of “Superbad” acts as either a satire or subversion of the unhealthy ways men express their masculinity — through guns, sex, booze or fighting — but Evan and Seth discover that the best way to grow up and “be a man” is to actually grow the hell up.
And of course, it almost goes without saying that “Superbad” is incredibly funny and Cera is incredibly funny in it. Much of the humor hasn’t aged a day, and the scene where the world was introduced to the wonder that is McLovin remains one of the high points of comedy in the 21st century. Hill’s infuriated shouting is what most will remember, but Cera’s deadpan summation of the whole ordeal is the perfect punchline: “This guy is either gonna think, ‘Here’s another kid with a fake ID’ or ‘Here’s McLovin, the 25-year-old Hawaiian organ donor.’”
It could certainly be argued that Cera has never gotten another role as perfectly suited for him as Evan, another part that lets him loose low-key gut busters with dizzying frequency yet also tap into surprising emotional depth. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” comes close, and he voiced the best onscreen Robin of all time in “The Lego Batman Movie” just last year, but that unquantifiable something has never clicked back into place. This shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation of his career in the years since, however, though it’s certainly regrettable. Rather, it should be a reminder, should we ever need one, of the quality of “Superbad” and more importantly, the quality of its pasty co-lead.