Michael Cera: Unlikely Teen Heartthrob

Twenty-year-old actor Michael Cera is not your textbook hunk. Shy of six feet and still carrying what seems like baby fat, the guy is not familiar with free weights. His beaky nose and oddly tufted haircut cancel out the cuteness of his wide, expressive mouth and teddy-bear eyes. If he picked you up for a Saturday night date, he'd arrive in something small. And his clothes—oh girl, the clothes. He reportedly dresses (in real life) like his characters, which is to say that primary colors go together, a retro-styled red backpack is an acceptable carryall and pilled polyester hoodies are a wardrobe staple. (Article continued below...)

Also, he's Canadian. And lives there, in Toronto. With his parents.

"Look at how s----y he's dressed," giggles a party-girl character in his latest film, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," eyeing Cera's character. "And his Supercuts haircut."

But against all odds, Michael Cera is a teenage heartthrob, en route to the pantheon with Ricky Nelson, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Cassidy. He became a fixture in teen magazines after his first leading role in "Superbad" and is now the poster boy for producer-director Judd Apatow's dork renaissance. His fan sites—and there are many—have thousands of members among them; each site is a detailed altar to his geekdom. One keeps a poll on his hottest nerdy feature ("pasty white deodorant-clad legs" hold a commanding 64 percent lead over his "Ellen DeGeneres-style" haircut). Last year, during a news conference at annual pop-culture convention Comic-Con, Cera got a marriage proposal and an invitation to a girl's hotel room. "I want him to take me to prom, but after that, the next move is his," gushes fan Dottie, 17, on Cera's FanPop.com Web page. "All hail Michael Cera!"

Cera himself has no better idea than puzzled grown-ups as to why he's any teen's idea of a hottie. "A sex symbol?" he asked quizzically at a Canadian press conference earlier this month. "Like, I symbolize sex?"

In the good-natured "Nick and Norah," out Oct. 3, Cera's appeal isn't in his acting so much as his reacting—his wistful, tortured look at ex-flame Tris (Alexis Dziena); his simple, sprawling smile at new crush Norah (Kat Denning). And the substance of his considerable comedic chops, made famous in "Superbad," is in his mildly brilliant improvisation—as in previous roles, Cera's bumbling-dork-trying-to-be-cool shtick is incredibly fun to watch.

But the difference with "Nick and Norah" is how the film finally capitalizes on its star's unlikely sex appeal. For the first time in his career, Cera's role seems to invite the attention. Sex scenes in his earlier films were either disguised ("Juno") or filled with laugh-out-loud jokes ("Superbad"). In "Nick and Norah," the romantic encounters are almost uncomfortably real. He doesn't fumble; it clearly isn't his first time. In a post-coital embrace, Cera's limpid eyes gaze down at his partner: "You're beautiful," he says, quieting Norah's insecurities.

If you're out of your teens, it's a smidge uncomfortable to watch; Cera may be 20, but he looks all of 15. To the target audience, however, his moves are knee-weakening. The five teenage girls I took to the screening collectively raved: "I stopped breathing for a few seconds, I think," says one, age 14, of the romantic ending.

"He's the perfect beta man," sighs another.

"You read that in Cosmo, didn't you?!" chides a third.

Cera is not the first guy to win admirers with sensitive, "beta" schmaltz. John Cusack, emo man before "emo" was a term of art, is clearly an inspiration. Cera's Nick reads as a nerdier update on Cusack's Lloyd Dobler in 1989's "Say Anything": both are spacey, pondering drifters, with a weakness for raven-haired, alabaster-skinned beauties whose wit and brains—rather than physique—are her most flaunted assets. The difference? The better-looking Cusack played as more socially adept. While Cera simpers, reliant on his bushy, raised brows to convey a range of repressed emotions, Cusack fired off zingy mini-monologues. "I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, buy anything sold or processed, process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed," Cusack mused in the film, a famous sum-uppance of vague teenage principles.

It's Cera's bashful purity and sense of humor that make him appealing—until a certain age, anyway. "My grade doesn't, like, obsess over people anymore," says my youngest sister, who at 17 has outgrown Cera-mania.

Still, some screen presences remain forever young.

"We have a deal," says a girl at the screening, gesturing to her friend. "If she gets Harrison Ford, I can have Michael Cera."

There's a vast half century between the two, I point out.

"Yeah, but Han Solo?" another explained. "Han Solo is sexy."