Michael Cera Goes Tripping in Chile for ‘Crystal Fairy’

In This is the End, Michael Cera played a grotesque version of “himself”, a hard-partying, coke-snorting, sexual-harassing jerk of an actor named “Michael Cera”. The role wasn’t exactly new: Cera has long been willing to push against the meek, nerdy roles that defined his persona on Arrested Development and in Superbad and Juno. The web series Clark and Michael paired him with Clark Duke for plenty of low-key bad behavior; he played comic-book character Scott Pilgrim as kind of a squirrely whiner; and now, in Sebastian Silva’s Crystal Fairy, he plays Jamie, a toxically self-centered jackass.

We meet Jamie as a proverbial Ugly American, vacationing for an undetermined time in Chile. As the movie begins, he’s already hooked up with a trio of Chilean brothers (played by the director’s brothers, Agustín Silva, José Miguel Silva, and Juan Andrés Silva). They plan to acquire a hallucinogenic cactus called the San Pedro, and ingest it on a beach. At a party before they leave for their self-appointed mission, Jamie meets an earth-mother type who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), then invites her along on the trip.

That’s about all there is to Silva’s mostly improvised film: Jamie, the brothers, and Crystal Fairy look for the cactus, drive out to the beach, and get on each other’s nerves. While Jamie and his supposed friends address each other as “man” with perfect notes of passive-aggression, he and Crystal Fairy clash right down to their souls. She is deeply, dippily sincere, going on about healing stones and walking around naked, while Jamie is antsy to get his drug and take it as soon as possible, turning snidely impatient with anyone who doesn’t help him to this end.

Jamie gets as close as possible to open disdain of Crystal Fairy (whom he dubs “Crystal Hairy” after observing her shaving habits), without quite crossing the line into direct confrontation. Cera’s physical transformation makes Jamie’s meanness convincing: the loss of baby fat from his face leaves his nose looking sharper and more defined, and he’s let his moppish hair grow out so he sometimes looks borderline wolfish. As Jamie prowls for drugs, the insistently flaky Crystal tries to ingratiate herself to the “boys”, as she calls them, adopting a maternal, slightly lecturing tone with them. The Silvas roll with it, but Jamie resists, and so the movie almost plays as a sour romantic comedy between two fairly insufferable people. It helps that the two improvising actors have mastered the conversational patter of their subcultural types — hipster and hippie, respectively.

Jamie and Crystal’s mutual insufferability is often very funny, but the movie hits the same notes over and over, the characters repeatedly bumping up against each other’s unchanging personalities. At 70 minutes, such recurrence might have seemed a wonderfully realized character sketch. At 100, Crystal Fairy (full onscreen title: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012) grows tedious.

This plot problem is alleviated to some extent by the film’s look. Once the druggy part of the trip begins in earnest, the movie gets prettier and slower, occasionally recalling the hallucinatory eeriness of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Silva makes subtle changes in the cinematography’s color timing to mark the varying levels of trippiness, and an evocative closing shot almost feels self-reflective.

Still, the movie stops more than it properly ends. Indeed, Cera and Silva’s collaboration isn’t over: Crystal Fairy will be followed later this summer by another film, also shot in Chile, called Magic Magic, conceived before this one but shot afterward. Maybe it will provide opportunity for Cera to explore further his variations on male self-consciousness, and for Silva to push his material beyond smart sketching.

RATING 5 / 10