Another gesture toward dissolving Michael Cera’s bland nice-guy image, Crystal Fairy finds the actor not only indulging in a new asshole persona (previously and briefly glimpsed in This Is the End), but heading abroad as well, for the first of two collaborations with Chilean director Sebastián Silva. As Jamie, an American expat living in Santiago, Cera accomplishes the tricky feat of a comedic actor playing against type, establishing a character who forcefully externalizes his awkwardness, injecting every interaction with passive-aggressive conceit. It’s the kind of character that seems to be begging for comeuppance, and as with Tim Heidecker’s scornful protagonist in The Comedy, the film’s tension grows from questions of how much the other characters—whether Jamie’s quietly suffering Chilean roommate, Champa (Juan Andres Silva), or the prostitutes he invites back to their tiny apartment for dinner—will be willing to take from him.
Crystal Fairy establishes its focus on social dynamics at an introductory house party, where Champa leads Jamie around, acting as his shepherd and part-time translator. It’s here that the two encounter the title character (Gaby Hoffmann), who Jamie describes as a “dark tornado,” taking it upon himself to disrupt her embarrassing dance moves, never realizing he’s making just as much of a scene himself. Inspired by some innate insufficiency, there’s a relentless, force-of-nature inevitability to his own bad behavior as he sweeps through the party like a plague, consuming and critiquing the local cocaine, clogging toilets, and finally sabotaging a planned camping excursion, inviting Crystal Fairy along in a fit of spontaneous affability.
Sandwiching Champa and his two younger brothers, Lel and Pilo (José Miguel and Agustín Silva), between two wildly different Ugly Americans, Silva presents the film’s centerpiece camping trip as an ongoing clash of personalities. Despite her open-minded positivity and fondness for earth magic, Crystal is as horrid of a person as Jamie, condescending to the Chileans for buying junk food while sneaking surreptitious sips of Coke, strutting around their shared hotel room naked as if this weren’t an imposition on everyone’s comfort. The more she and Jamie butt heads, the clearer it becomes how similar they are, each derailing every situation in which they’re involved. One does so pretending there are no rules, the other by imposing his own rules and hang-ups onto everything around him. Yet despite playing up their most miserable qualities, Silva presents these characters as ripe for redemption, constructing their flaws around a core of internal insecurity, imbuing both with a genuine, relatable desire for experience.
For Jamie, this desire is revealed through more atrocious conduct, as he becomes increasingly obsessed with acquiring and consuming a special type of psychotropic cactus. As in The Maid, Silva uses this single-minded mania to both hatch comedic set pieces and outline general power mechanics, establishing the strained relationship between these presumptuous Americans and their adopted country. Yet like that previous film, those mechanics are exposed but never subjected to much further examination. Instead, Crystal Fairy settles for small-scale, character-rooted drama. This results in some jagged, undeveloped nods to privilege and arrogance, like the brief scene where Jamie makes reference to himself and Crystal as “white people,” a term that, while seemingly innocent, effectively positions his fair-skinned Chilean friends outside this imaginary circle of first-world authority.
There’s so much baggage involved in the kind of dilettantish games Jamie and Crystal are playing—using a foreign country as their own personal playpen, its culture as grist for self-validation and indulgent exploration—that it’s a shame that the film never fully engages with these enticing issues. As the camping excursion drably segues into a catharsis-inspiring drug trip, the focus shifts into a more standard analysis of how cultural roles are formed, as well as the way individual trauma calcifies into the rigid outer shell of personality. This is an easy out compared to the heavier issues the film initially seems to be skirting, and equally little is done with Champa, Lel, and Pilo, who are perpetually wedged between the louder personalities of Jamie and Crystal Fairy, without much to do besides react to their unreasonable behavior or intercede as peacemakers. The mere fact of this intimidated inactivity may signify something politically, but Silva’s script and direction are never overt enough to bring out these points, leaving Crystal Fairy as a pleasant but forgettable comedy which ends up stifling its early potential.