Jesse Eisenberg vs. Michael Cera: Who's Winning?

Last year, in the months following the release of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, starring Michael Cera, and Adventureland, starring Jesse Eisenberg, movie blogs were abuzz with posts about the seeming interchangeableness of the two actors. For most of their careers, they’ve played young, lanky, sensitive types who serve as the moral center of movies where the adults (and other teens) behave in decidedly amoral ways. With the mainstream appeal of Juno, Superbad, and the (canceled) TV series Arrested Development, it seemed Cera was pulling ahead in the popularity contest. But now, with two films opening May 24 (Solitary Man and Holy Rollers) Eisenberg is making a strong move for first place. Which, no offense to Cera, is where he belongs.

The characters Cera and Eisenberg play are most notable for their innocence. Both actors are exceptional at standing around with squirmy, uncomfortable expressions on their faces while the other characters make asses of themselves. Neither is teen-idol handsome, yet the essential good-heartedness of their characters ensures the audience roots for them to get the girl. They usually both play boys, on the cusp of becoming men, whose intelligence both alienates them from their peers, and enables them to remain secure in themselves—even when they don’t quite fit in. Though their past roles may seem nearly identical, there’s a difference, and it’s what makes Eisenberg (so far) the more interesting actor.

Even though Eisenberg’s characters are innocent, that doesn’t mean they’re impervious to corruption. In fact, it is their naiveté they have to shed in order to become the mensches we want them to be. They do this not by coming to terms with the malice in the world (as Cera’s characters do), but with the malice in their own hearts. We first glimpsed this in The Squid and the Whale, where Eisenberg played the older son of a couple struggling through a mismanaged divorce. Clearly a victim of his parents’ narcissism and shortcomings, he’s no saint himself, jerking around his own first girlfriend. By the end of the film there’s hope he’s going to turn out OK, but also the recognition that, at the moment, he’s kind of a douchebag.

In Adventureland, his character is again victimized by the failings of his parents, who renege on their promise of financial support, and he winds up working at an amusement park to earn cash. He falls in love with a truly great girl—and then, again, acts like a jerk. Part of the maturation process, these roles suggest, is not just getting hurt, but hurting others, and dealing with the consequences.

Not every Eisenberg role is so richly drawn: Roger Dodger, his first film, portrayed him as a more traditionally sympathetic adolescent foil to Campbell Scott’s dissolute ladykiller. The horror flick Zombieland, while boosting his box-office cred, didn’t give him much more to work with.And Solitary Man, in which his character develops an unlikely friendship with a washed-up Michael Douglas, is similarly toothless.

Holy Rollers, on the other hand, is an even darker-shaded performance. The exotic plot, based on a real-life ecstasy smuggling ring of Hasidic Jews, serves a rather routine prodigal-son story that we’ve seen in countless drug films. But Eisenberg adds complexity to the role of the sheltered, idealistic Hasid who discovers he has a taste for the secular life. It’s hard to imagine Cera playing the role as anything but cute—a well-meaning kid who found himself in the wrong place in the wrong time. Eisenberg, however, risks losing the audience’s sympathy by allowing the character to become actually unlikable, and fully responsible for his own fate. Initially a victim of his own innocence, he is all the more adept at exploiting the innocence of others.

When Cera has explored less sympathetic characters, it’s in the guise of an alter ego, as in the recent Youth in Revolt, where his utterly innocent, good-hearted nice guy tried on the persona of a cruel, reckless, chain-smoking French heartbreaker. At this point, this may be the only way audiences will accept a non-cuddly Cera: when it’s clearly a spoof of his normal onscreen teddy bear. Eisenberg, by pushing the limits of audience sympathy, ultimately wins our hearts.