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Attack of the Johnny One-Notes! (Commentary)

Johnny could only sing one note
And the note he sings was this

Poor Johnny one-note
sang out with "gusto"
And just overloaded the place
Poor Johnny one-note
yelled willy nilly
Until he was blue in the face
For holding one note was his ace

"Johnny One-Note" from Babes in Arms by Richard Rogers and Lorez Hart.

There used to be a time when actors deathly feared being "typecast," meaning that as much as they may've wanted to or been able to play different kinds of parts, they were only offered variations of the same thing - i.e. Mafia tough, ditzy blonde, etc. I'm not talking about roles which they're most identified with like John Wayne as a cowboy, Humphrey Bogart as a guy in a trenchcoat or George Clooney as a very handsome man, but those who get stuck in the Danny Trejo rut (i.e. because he always plays ditzy bimbos, wait, what?) though they went to Julliard or studying with Lee Strasberg. Occasionally an actor pigeon-holed into one type is able to rattle the preconception cage and surprise us with an unexpected performance that they probably had to beg to play - think: any gorgeous actress who gets ugly, fat and/or beaten for a dramatic role (right, Farah, Charlize, and Nicole?) - but few are that lucky.

The past decade or so has seen a major uptick in actors so limited in their range, seemingly happily so, that they fall into a couple of categories: those who we know by name regardless of the character's name and those who we know only by their seminal character's identity and then proceed to call them that for the rest of their lives. How does this work? Quick: Who's co-starring with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys? If you said, "Marky Mark," you're living what I'm saying. How about this: who are Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Seann William Scott? Ring any bells? OK, who are the actors who played McLovin in Superbad and Stifler in American Pie? (For the answer, please look back three sentences.)

While there are still versatile actors like Will Smith and Angelina Jolie who play all sorts of roles equally well and have (and will have) long varied careers, where do Stifler, McLovin, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera go from the roles they've always played? Does anyone seriously see them playing anything but what they always have? Even Ethan Hawke took a plausible stab at Hamlet. Hell, JACK BLACK, has attempted to not be his tubby slacker self a little.

What prompts this long simmering commentary is the opening today of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World starring the non-entity called Michael Cera. After enduring his same meek mouse act in I can't say how many films, I described him this way on Facebook: "Michael Cera is an empty hole in the middle of the screen whose presence is only discernible by the surrounding environment. Just as a donut hole is defined by the donut around it, we only know Michael Cera exists because everything else is around him. I wouldn't be surprised if his scripts come with his character named 'Michael Cera.'" Mind you, it's not that I hate Cera - I have more opprobrium for humidity - but he is such a rangeless actor that as snazzy as it looks and liking Edgar Wright's other films (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz) and the concept (haven't read the books), I feel that the whole endeavor is going to be crippled by putting the drippy noneness of Cera at the center of everything.

This has been a problem for Cera in movies like Youth In Revolt*, Juno, and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist as we've been expected to believe he was the dream guy of otherwise intelligent females. Juno was a whip-smart 14-year-old boy (note: obligatory Ellen Page crack) and we're supposed to believe that she wanted this void to fill hers? The most ridiculous conceit of N&NIPL is that Kat Denning's character had never orgasmed until the Mightly Hand of Cera gets on the case. (I turned to my girlfriend at that point and said, "So this is a science fiction film?") So wussy is Cera that the heavy ex-boyfriend of Norah was played by Jay Baruchel of She's Out of My League and Undeclared semi-obscurity. Perusing the reviews for Scott Pilgrim, even the most laudatory only assign faint praise to Cera's portrayal and it sounds a lot like those who didn't think Ben Affleck ruined Daredevil.

Final quiz item about Michael Cera: Name one of characters he's played in movies - not TV, cuz the fact he was named George Michael on Arrested Development is a gimme - that isn't in the movie's title, meaning "Scott Pilgrim" or "Nick" aren't acceptable answers. I'm waiting...

The next actor-known-only-by-his-name due a beating is Jonah Hill, aka "that fat annoying guy in all those movies." As my Get Him To The Greek review said, "Jonah Hill plays a variation of the same fat guy he plays in everything." Amirite? Since he's never had a title character like Cera, I honestly couldn't tell you what the name of his character has been in anything he's done. Even Judd Apatow didn't bother, naming Hill's part in Knocked Up "Jonah." (Probably to ensure he'd respond when spoken to when the cameras were rolling.) I hear he's good in this Cyrus movie, but as with Cera and Scott Pilgrim, I don't even pretend to believe he's going to be any different.

Now the other variant on this theme are the known-by-their-role actors like McLovin and Stif...whoops, see what I mean? Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Seann William Scott. Those guys. Remember? Jeez, we just talked about them a few paragraphs ago! OK, McLovin and Stifler it is. While McLovin showed a little growth as Red Mist in Kick Ass, his part in Role Models was so similar to his Superbad role, I'm wondering if it wasn't McLARPin in the script. He seems like a nice kid, but I hope he's investing his earnings with his broker, Urkel.

As for Stifler, well, playing the role in three American Pie movies and falling back on the persona in flicks like Bulletproof Stifler (ne Monk) and The Rock and Stifler in the Jungle (bka The Rundown) pretty much seals his fate, doesn't it? He did do a good job with a dual role as twins in Southland Tales, but the movie was an epic mess of effed-upness that no one saw. Most recently endured in the execrable Cop Out, where he played someone who may as well have been named "Shitfler," I'm not betting on any big transformations coming in his future.

Looking over this rogue's gallery, I'm struck by the lack of women on it. Is it because there are so few female stars with even archetypal characters? Bonnie Hunt usually shows up as the sardonic tart sister or friend; Anna Farris typically plays bubbly comic parts, but has done other stuff. Some might be tempted to suggest Summer Glau whose Hottie Terminator on the show of the same name (in my mine; my g/f called it "Sarah Chonic") was just a mechanized verson of River Tam from Firefly/Serenity but as similar as they were, along with her part on Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, I caught her on an episode of The Unit and she was so different it didn't seem like her.

While the fates of a quartet of one-note actors doesn't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world (as Sam Marlowe would say, wait, what?), it's odd to see that instead of fleeing typecasting as actors past would've, they've basically embraced it for immediate reward vs. having a future. (When Michael Cera wants to get his Olivier on and perform Othello - HA! Yeah, right! Like cross-racial performances like that would ever happen these days! - who's going to do anything but stare at him, give him a noogie and tell him to get outta here?)

The problem for movie makers is that in casting these Johnny One-Notes, they're polarizing the potential audience pool because some people won't even entertain seeing films featuring them because they JUST KNOW that so-and-so will "suck and be no different than he is in everything else." Surf around and read the nerd-rage comments on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - many who may've been interested because they've read the books or like the director are loudly announcing they're not interested because Cera's in it. As audiences reject his boy-boyish-man persona over and over, how long will it be until no one wants to hire him to sing his single note?

I was going to link to my Youth In Revolt review, but to my surprise I never even logged when I saw it, much less wrote a review sometime in June. It wasn't that bad, but I can't believe I didn't notice it got left off. Says a lot, doesn't it?


UPDATE: Two days after writing this, Scott Pilgrim's opening weekend B.O. was a meager $10.5 million, opening #5, and this HitFix piece mulls over why it flopped. Of particular note was this:
Hollywood and the media still thought Michael Cera was a star then, which brings us to the first problem:

In 2010, Michael Cera hurts you at the box office.
After "Superbad" and a supporting role in "Juno," many mistakenly believed the "Arrested Development" cast member was the next quirky, unexpected star who could relate to the millennial generation. Well, not so much. His follow ups either were puzzling, but quality misfires ("Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," "Youth in Revolt") or outright bombs ("Year One"). That string of negative results basically stung Cera's likability with audiences. Unfortunately, he'd already been selected as the lead and shot "Pilgrim" before the biggest turd, "Year One," even hit theaters. Universal quickly realized the problem, but while they could hide his face on the poster, it was hard to take Scott Pilgrim himself out of the trailers or TV spots. And frankly, if you're Cera's agent, you better be hoping that "Arrested" movie actually gets off the ground or HBO comes calling about a TV series after this weekend.
You heard it here first.


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