When last seen, Michael Cera was impaled on a lamppost like a hunk of wriggling bait in “This Is the End.” In his new film he wanders the desert hugging a giant, phallic, hallucinogenic cactus. In short, he has transformed himself from one of the most irritating actors of his generation to one of the best. And a good part of the credit goes to Chilean director Sebastián Silva and his “Crystal Fairy,” a wry, sad, latter-day “Easy Rider” (1969).
Actually, the film in some ways resembles a much more recent movie, “Aftershock,” the horror movie co-written by and starring Eli Roth. Like Roth’s character in that film, here Jamie (Cera) is an obnoxious, naive American who has traveled to Chile in search of cheap thrills, specifically a taste of the magic San Pedro cactus, which he hopes will blow his mind a la Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception.” He has enlisted his three local friends, Champa, Lel, and Pilo (played by Silva’s brothers, Juan Andrés, José Miguel, and Agustín Silva) to help him on his quest.
Unlike “Aftershock,” however, comeuppance this time arrives not as a devastating earthquake and a rampaging horde of bloodthirsty convicts, but in the form of the title flibbertigibbet (Gaby Hoffmann), a spaced-out, fellow-American flower child whom Jamie meets at a dismal and debauched party. Bemused by her manic dancing, he invites her to join them on the expedition, but high on coke, booze, pot, and whatever else is available, and for some reason bewildered by a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and a turd floating in a toilet (it’s that kind of movie), he immediately forgets about her. So it is with mixed feelings that they find, the next day, that Crystal Fairy has joined them.
At first, Crystal comes off as an easily mocked airhead full of New Age nonsense and cosmic cheeriness. She delivers embarrassingly earnest mystical rants while strolling about naked, inspiring the four boys to nickname her “Crystal Hairy.” Jamie especially takes a dislike to her, and becomes so abusive that he alienates the others (Silva ironically uses subtitles to good effect to show just how much the monolingual Jamie doesn’t get what’s going on). And then Jamie becomes the one everyone hates — so much for expanding his consciousness.
In fact, though, the San Pedro does work some of its magic when they finally imbibe it. True, this is no “Zabriskie Point” (1970) when it comes to cryptic profundities. Despite the fact that members of the cast reportedly took drugs during the shooting, their tripping-on-the-beach scenes seem tamer than the average fraternity kegger. And aside from a few tricks with the soundtrack (the music is both arch and ingenuous) and some discreet visual filigrees (split-second inserted images, slow motion), Silva doesn’t resort to any fancy tricks to depict his characters’ inner experiences. But something happens nonetheless, a bonding of sorts that is almost, if not quite, convincing. It’s enough to change Jamie from an compulsive jerk into a nice guy, and Michael Cera from a self-conscious nerd into a vulnerable, nuanced actor.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.