When Michael Cera appeared in befuddled virginal fashion in Superbad, he started a trend, although the disaffected geek has been already featured in a string of coming-of-age films and TV shows. Among some of the more notable examples are Matthew Broderick in WarGames, Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club, Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Wes Bentley in American Beauty, and John Heder in Napoleon Dynamite.
Part whiz, part social flake, we’re talking about a figure that dates back to literary icons like Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger), misfits like Sal Mineo’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, and the pre-hipsters that John Cusack played in Say Anything and High Fidelity.
Jesse Eisenberg, a revelatory up and coming actor raised in New York by a college professor and a professional clown, belongs to this exemplary area too. Eisenberg is 26 years old, unconventionally attractive and easily recognizable by his neurotic gentle shtick; his features ooze bonhomie, and he’s well versed academically. In addition to his newly blossoming film career, he is currently an anthropology major at the New School in New York and a budding playwright. Eisenberg is often compared to Michael Cera by critics.
Hollywood has recently re-prioritized its old stereotypes and has given these oversensitive, intelligent dupes their chance. This character constitutes a figure that has been evolving since the ’80s and got its consolidation by way of the slacker inamoratos in ’90s grunge cinema (for example, Paul Rudd in Clueless, Stephen Dorff in So Fucking What, James Spader in Sex, Lies, and Videotapes, etc.) who seemed to find their ascension once the indie phenomenon made its way into mainstream culture, as an article in Paste Magazine discusses.
But the inscrutable nerd in film is a more complex type than we think, since it agglomerates disparate characteristics that suggest essentially a blatant contradiction (awkwardness meets a romantic side) which could extrapolate Jerry Lewis or Rick Moranis’s nuttines with Woody Allen/Dustin Hoffman’s histrionics along with James Dean/Montgomery Clift’s old-fashioned romanticized detachment.
Going back to the parallels to Michael Cera, it’s true the two share a gawky attitude, nervous sensibility, and hip wardrobe, but the biggest difference is also what separates both irremediably, and it’s how their fictional characters deal with sexual situations differently. Jesse Eisenberg takes us to a level not matched enough before the ’00s films, where the disenpowered variorum of dorks started to acquire self-awareness and self-respect, and thereby their stories were diversified and polished up.
Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) is a documentary written by Robert X. Cringely. Its title is an homage to the film Revenge of the Nerds (1984), based on Cringely’s book Accidental Empires. It may not be a coincidence after all — one of Eisenberg’s latest projects is The Social Network, directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac), about the origins of Facebook and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, following the creation of the hugely successful social networking site. This incremented quota of schmick, crackbrained, and high netiquette mavericks is attempted to emend the prejudices that unfairly held them back for so long.
These socially recusant male models are gaining new popularity among females due to an irresistible dualism (a combination of academic narcissism and sentimental clumsiness), and Jesse Eisenberg never portrays the type as a mere caricature. There is always a disquieting humane quality through his “non compos mentis” gimmick, redefining the geek’s socially unskilled scepticism in manifestly painful quips and relatable disension. His is a prodigious alloy of ’80s nerdiness and ’90s hip slackerism connected via the unflappable ’00s emo boy.
He began his professional career acting at 7 as Oliver Twist in a New Jersey children’s theater production with Al Pacino on board. Then he landed a role in the TV show Get Real, playing Anne Hathaway’s little brother Kenny Green (a sweet teenager who burst into tears when he kissed his neighbour Amy goodbye in the episode “Prey”). A lot of his screen characters can play off people — their neuroses usually portend and anticipate an oncoming breakdown, but they help the girl get her life back into gear.
Eisenberg’s breakout role was in Roger Dodger (2002) directed by Dylan Kidd. Its very sharp screenplay introduces us to the main character Roger Swanson, master in sexual politics, who decides to teach his nephew from Ohio, Nick ( Eisenberg) — who’s visiting New York after an interview at Columbia University — about women and seduction games with two barflies: Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals). Eisenberg is perfect as the shy apprentice who, scrambling for his first sexual experience, surpasses his cynical uncle, offering us a soliloquy:
It always drives me nuts when I hear a guy going on about something a girl does that’s supposed to be so sexy. Like how she flips her hair. How she stands with one foot to the side. It could be anything. Because that’s nothing. That’s just something she does. And she probably only does it because she saw it in a movie. It’s not real. It’s not their real stuff. Yeah, but it’s all the outside stuff. That’s fiine in the beginning. You need the outside stuff. You need, like, the reasons to be in love. But I think you can get past that. I think you can get to the part where the little tricks don’t mean anything. You need, like, the reasons to be in love. I can’t describe it exactly but it’s like there’s nothing she can do. All her usual ways of hooking you in have no effect and yet you’re still in love. It’s like the act is over and you get to the part she’s been hiding. And she’s been hiding it because she thinks that’s the part that’s gonna blow it or make you leave or get bored or whatever, but you get to that part, and you’re still there. And you’re even more in love.
After two brief roles in The Village (2004), directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and The Emperor’s Club (2002), he starred in Wes Craven’s Cursed as Jimmy, Christina Ricci’s brother, half geek, half werewolf. He takes a shine to a schoolmate Brooke (Kristina Anapau), who dates a closeted gay bully Bo (Milo Ventimiglia). In the last act of the film he questions his sister about her clingy affection for a man who isn’t ready to commit to her (screenwriter Kevin Williamson trying here to make a metaphor of a non-commital guy identified as a monster) and Jimmy says to his sister, “I know you think he’s a good guy, Ellie, but don’t forget, all of this, everything we’ve been through, is because of him, when it comes down to it, a monster is still a monster.”
In The Squid and the Whale (2005) written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Jesse plays the fictionalized version of the real adolescent Baumbach as Walt Berkman, the petulant son of a washed out littérateur, Bernard, in the process of divorce from a promising novelist, Joan (played impressively by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). Walt whines at his mother “you disgust me” and feels proud of his elitist egomaniac father (who demeans ordinary people as “philistines”) in the first part of the film, but he’ll progressively communicate more with his mother looking for comfort; in this time lag he’s oblivious to his nice girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer) while he maintains a childish obsession with a sexy student, Lili (Anna Paquin). Walt powerlessly observes his father’s appalling despondency and he fantasizes about being intimate with Lili, who (having once plagiarized one of Lou Reed’s verses) knows of Walt’s secret rip-off of a Pink Floyd song that he’s been passing as his own. In a double climactic father/son denouement, Bernard makes an elegant farewell citing Belmondo’s ‘Déguelasse’ line to Jean Seberg in Godard’s film À bout de souffle, and Walt accepts the scary uncertainty caused by his limitations: “The scary fish at the Natural History museum. I was always afraid of the squid and the whale fighting. I could only look at it with my hands in front of my face.”
It’s a fine dramatic (and marine) note to end this autobiographical film, since our visual system (primate) is made to appreciate yellow and red colors but below sea level there is no red light so male fish, when trying to attract females, only see blue tones.
In The Education of Charlie Banks (2007) directed by musician Fred Durst, Eisenberg plays Charlie, a bourgeois young man whose acquaintances belong to an uppity college environment during the ’70s at Brown University in Rhode Island. He’s running away from a bad boy Mick (Jason Ritter) while he tries unsuccessfully to invite the “very much out of his league” Mary to a lunch. Among decadent parties, references to The Great Gatsby and Derrida, Charlie (a “cold bitch”) flips a “fuck off” to Mary when he’s the object of her condescending derision, learning a difficult moral lesson when he confronts Mick in the end.
Eisenberg appeared in indie films such as The Living Wake, and One Day Like Rain in 2007, and then was cast in a supporting role in The Hunting Party, playing Benjamin Strauss, the son of a TV network executive who’s desirous of being taken seriously in journalism field, joining an unsteady twosome of veteran reporters embarking on a hunting mission to capture The Fox, the number one war criminal in Bosnia.
In Adventureland Eisenberg looks nattier and can display as James Brennan (Greg Mottola’s stand-in) his full dramatic range (oscillating from comedic to dramatic timing) and heartthrob potential, blessed at Kristen Stewart’s (Em Lewin) side: “Wait, Em. I think I maybe see you a little differently than you see yourself.”
In Zombieland (2009) directed by Ruben Fleischer, he stars as the distressed Columbus, a WoW video game player who dreams of finding a girl to fall in love with, and to take her to meet his remote family. The outside landscape is draughty, full of undead zombies who chase the only surviving humans in the USA to kill and infect them. So the first chance for him will happen with an infected beauty (Amber Heard playing a mysterious blonde anonymized as #406) whose intentions are not precisely too amorous. Columbus: “You see? You just can’t trust anyone. The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me.”
Columbus joins the out of whack zombie hunter Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). This is a wild road trip in search of an escape from a dreadful destiny, hoarding vintage guns and durable goods, but most importantly, in a desperate search for a Twinkie (for Tallahassee) or one’s own trust (for Columbus). Both goofballs will meet two cute bad-ass sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).
The movie starts with a funny exordium of Columbus explaining to the viewer his methodic catalogue of rules to survive in Zombieland, and it ends with his apogee at Pacific Playland. On the surface Zombieland is a full blast horror comedy but there is a surreptitious tongue-in-cheek conclusion, a sideswipe at America’s alienating culture among plenty of wisecracking and goo.
Eisenberg attended the Sundance Film Festival to promote one of his latest films, Holy Rollers (2010), directed by Kevin Asch, which has just been purchased by First Independent Pictures acquiring U.S. distribution rights. Eisenberg plays a Hasidic Jew named Sam Gold who, influenced by Yosef (Justin Bartha), turns into a drug mule and, developing an interest in one of his drug boss’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor), lives a cultural clash against his religious precepts. The plot is inspired by actual events about Orthodox Jews recruited to illegally bring ecstasy into New York City from Amsterdam in the late ’90s.
Eisenberg’s laugh out loud moments may not be as frequent as in Cera’s case, but the main discordance between them is that Michael Cera seems to fall into a cataplexic state when he’s infatuated with an attractive chick and he’s always passive towards the girls he’s after, even in Youth in Revolt, where a naughty alter ego Francois Dillinger appears, his conquest weapons relied on deadpan courtship. Cera himself confesses in the Movieline interview:
Q: Do you have an inner Francois?
Cera: Not really. No.
As Superbad‘s and Adventureland‘s director Mottola expresses, “Jesse, I think, is a little more sexualized than Michael.”
“Every script is about a guy trying to have sex with lots of women. I read them and my veins hurt, like, what am I doing with my life? — except, of course, acting,” Eisenberg told BlackBook.
We see in Jesse Eisenberg a stubborness, a social emotional nerdiness, but also a healthy chirpiness which throws us back into reality, because we realise that even when his character has won, a sense of insecurity remains inside his privileged brain.