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How Jesse Eisenberg Became More Annoyingly Awkward Than Michael Cera

Right around the turn of the decade, moviegoers and pop culture watchers were taxed with an increasingly difficult dilemma. You see, there were two different floppy-haired, disaffected, mildly sarcastic young actors playing very similar roles: Michael Cera, the Arrested Development alum who’d made a successful crossover to movies with leading roles in Superbad and Juno, and Jesse Eisenberg, sort of the indie-movie Cera, familiar from smaller pictures like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland. And it seemed we were expected to not only tell these all-but-interchangeable actors apart, but to pick one. (This town’s not big enough for two charmingly mumbly collegiate types.) Pressed with a choice, viewers — grown-up ones, anyway — seemed to embrace Mr. Eisenberg. But now they may be reconsidering.

Here’s what we know: Eisenberg is one of the co-stars of the new magic-based thriller Now You See Me. Last month, a Univision/ABC reporter named Romina Puga interviewed Eisenberg as part of a press junket for the film. You’ve seen these junket interviews before: the actor is set up in a hotel suite, sat in front of a poster for the movie, and entertainment journalists are paraded in, five to 15 minutes at a time, to ask what usually amount to the same banal questions, and the actors recite the same scripted answers. Sometimes it goes awry, and the results are awesome. And sometimes it goes like this:

Over the past few days, the interview has gone weirdly viral. Part of that was caused by Puga’s own Tumblr entry about it, in which she says she was “just humiliated by Jesse Eisenberg,” mentioning how she “just wanted to go cry,” and narrating the tale of her awkward interview with several “UGHHHHHHHHH”s. Fox News, always one to pounce on the scourge of Hollywood “elites,” picked up the story with the sensationalistic headline “Jesse Eisenberg almost makes female interviewer cry.” Yahoo tackled the story with a lose/lose question: “Is he mean or just awkward?”

Let’s voice a few caveats here: Casting Eisenberg as the villain and Puga as the hero is an awfully simplistic reading. I’ve been to a few of these things, and suffice it to say that these “junketeers” tend to lean towards a certain type, and the odd familiarity, lack of preparation, and reliance on weird “schtick” like this “say my name” business is (within my experience, anyway) not exactly unique. As Film School Rejects’ Jack Giroux rightly points out, “Eisenberg was a good sport saying Romina’s name and doing that card trick; he just couldn’t help but to make a few jokes about the whole ordeal. If Romina Puga can make her jokes about his thumbs and responses, why can’t Eisenberg?”

Fair enough. But the Eisenberg video is making waves, and here’s why: whatever the degree of malice in his intentions, and however thick the object of his derision may have been, we’re not used to seeing actors being mean to interviewers. Put simply, everybody else plays along. Why can’t Eisenberg?

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Back in the pick-your-slacker heyday, when Eisenberg and Cera were competing for the affection of the mass audience, Cera started with an advantage. But that took a turn around 2011, when he suffered from a series of box-office duds (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Youth in Revolt, Paper Heart) while Eisenberg wowed critics with The Social Network — a performance that would land him an Oscar nomination. In interviews, Eisenberg seemed self-deprecating and hard-working (except when mentioning how much he dislikes being mistaken for Cera); meanwhile, we kept hearing that Cera was the lone hold out for an Arrested Development reunion, since he wanted to focus on films and not return to the George Michael persona that had come to define him. This information, more than anything, started the Cera backlash.

Funny story about that, from The Playlist:

“We had started to do this sort of Andy Kaufman-esque thing that Michael Cera wasn’t willing to come back and do the show or do the movie,” Hurwitz explained referencing interviews circa 2008 where various members of the “Arrested Development” family would state in interviews that they weren’t sure of Cera’s participation. “It was like, who’s the most absurd person who would tell us to go to hell?”

Back in the day, Cera was known as sole “hold out,” but the joke spiraled out of hand. “Then very quickly that got around a little too fast and it was like a wildfire,” Hurwitz said. “It got out there. And I started seeing, ‘Go to hell Michael Cera, we hate Michael Cera!’ and [we thought], ‘Alright, let’s dial this one back.’ “

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Cera took his lumps. He went off the grid for a while, disappearing to Chile and making two movies with Sebastian Silva. His latest film role is a self-skewering (literally) turn in This Is the End, playing himself as a coked-out scumbag. He’s writing and directing short films. And when Arrested Development came back, not only was he not a “hold out” — he was actively involved in the show’s production, working in the writers’ room and credited as a consulting producer. And his character (always one of the show’s best) was the focus of two of the new season’s best episodes. Best of all, they centered on the development (and, in one hilarious episode stinger, legal battle) of FakeBlock, a clever Social Network parody that seemed to riff on the actors’ long-running interchangeability.

Meanwhile, Eisenberg followed up The Social Network with a comedy tastelessly based on a murder/kidnapping, a few flaccid and underseen indies, and one of Woody Allen’s weaker recent efforts. And now his work in the surprisingly profitable Now You See Me is being overshadowed by his own snippiness at an otherwise forgettable junket interview — creating a narrative that perhaps Eisenberg is so good at playing dickish nerds because it’s not much of a stretch. So the question emerges: did Michael Cera “win” this battle after all?

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