May 21, 2024

Michael Cera as Allan in ‘Barbie’ Is the Best Performance of His Career

Much has been made of Michael Cera’s performance in Barbie, where he plays a sort of bizarro-Ken: Allan, the discontinued, waifish bestie of the Barbies’ buff male counterparts. There are many Kens, but only one Allan, and that singular nature is to Cera’s benefit. Barbie takes advantage of Cera’s unique, instantly identifiable presence: He’s very good at playing the awkward, non-threatening, sweetheart. Allan, the one male doll that supports the Barbies in their fight against the Ken-triarchy, is very much all of those things—I can’t imagine that Jonathan Groff, the original pick for the character, would have been convincing as a sexless male feminist, as Cera is.

Watching Cera in Barbie, which is his first major role in a big movie arguably since Superbad, I found myself waxing nostalgic about the career he’s had. In some ways, his take on Allan—who goes from the beleaguered best friend of the Kens to the guy helping to knock them back down a peg—feels like a culmination of his roles in several past projects. There’s a Scott Pilgrim-like naivete to him. His desire to be recognized by the Kens is reminiscent of his quest for high school normalcy in Superbad. But he also has an effortless, quiet charm to him, like the “totally boss” Paulie Bleeker, who he plays in Juno, does—to the Barbies, at least.

Barbie is a major forum for Cera to play into all of these traits, ones which seem to be drawn much from real life. In interviews, Cera is calm, earnest, and naturally funny. (I speak from experience.) So, too, is Allan, who draws laughs from being a put-upon nebbish for much of the film. Allan never looks comfortable, in part due to his confusion as to why there aren’t any other Allans in Barbieland. His hilariously overzealous affinity for Ken also feels sincere in a way that is totally undeserved, considering none of the Kens pay him more than a moment’s notice.

But I’ve always liked Michael Cera best in his smaller, weirder, less-known roles, and Allan honors those as well. He slayed me as the surreal Wally Brando in Twin Peaks: The Return, appearing in a single scene. There are few greater line deliveries than his perfectly bizarre sell of, “My dharma is the road. Your dharma is … [gestures toward the town around him]”. Much is still made over his against-type performance in This Is the End, in which he memorably slaps Rihanna’s butt and she (legitimately) slaps him back. And I recently saw him in the breezy, quirky comedy The Adults, in which he got mugged, sang silly songs, and did Marge Simpson impressions.

But my favorite performance of his has always been in the web series Clark and Michael, which ran in summer 2007 on CBS’ quickly defunct online streaming portal. (You can now watch all 10 episodes on YouTube.) In Clark and Michael, Cera played “Michael,” per the sitcom-style opening sequence. His best friend Clark Duke (Greek) similarly played himself. The show—whose humor admittedly doesn’t always hold up to today’s more-PC sensibilities—follows douchey dumb-dumbs Michael and Clark as they try to sell a TV pilot, despite their lack of talent, general unlikability, and delusions of grandeur.

With Cera coming straight off of Arrested Development, where he played the inherently good George Michael Bluth, such a role seemed almost intentionally subversive. As Michael, Cera calls Jason Biggs a “cocksucker,” constantly shuts the apartment door in his neighbor’s (Eric Wareheim) face, and asks a woman if she breast feeds her baby. In hindsight, it is jarring; once you get past the shock of seeing the actor whine and commit horrible faux pas, it is hilarious. His humor here is the kind of searing, quick, loose stuff we hardly get to see him play with in his studio roles.

Watching it even now, the sense that Clark and Michael is the product of two bros goofing off is palpable; the jokes are at times so random as to feel like secret in-jokes between Cera and Duke. I’ve hardly seen Cera look so genuinely happy in anything else.

Film still of Michael Cera in Barbie.

But Barbie is the first project of his to come close, I think. (Scott Pilgrim is neck-and-neck on the fun-Cera-meter.) Allan gets to steal the whole dang show in ways perfectly befitting of all versions of the actor. There’s a scene in which he announces to a shocked Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Gloria (America Ferrera) that living among the Kens is hell, that there are plenty of Allans in the real world (including the *NSYNC boys), and then knocks out a bunch of them with a shovel and his knee. It earns some of the movie’s biggest laughs. That Allan is the only male doll to join the Barbies in their patriarchy-smashing mission is similarly hilarious and telling.

For all the talk about how great Allan is in Barbie—and he is great!—I think it’s the context of Cera’s career that makes the character especially so for me. After nearly 20 years of this, it’s nice to see a character speak so fully to Cera’s many talents.

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Read more of our Barbie coverage HERE.

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