We meet Jamie at a Santiago house party. He looks like an unusually tall child but must be at least in his early 20s. The luggage under his eyes speaks to a penchant for partying that’s confirmed by his faux-cheerful complaints about the lack of good coke and weed in Chile. He seems to know a little Spanish but doesn’t much bother with it. He’s kinda cute, but also childish, arrogant and impatient. He brags an awful lot about stupid shit, keeps wedging his readings of The Doors of Perception into casual conversation, has a way of taking up more than his share of space and expects everyone to adhere to his timetable, even when he doesn’t. Jamie’s played by Michael Cera—perhaps it takes a Canadian to fully embody the Ugly American.
Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012 was churned out while Cera and Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva (The Maid) were trying to complete their other recent collaboration, Magic Magic. It’s an enjoyable comedy with a strong sense of those very particular friendships that develop when you’re young and traveling, when eagerness to find companionship and lack of fluency in any shared language helps to forge otherwise unlikely alliances. It’s shot in an uninspired but functional style, like a well-lit home movie—the handheld camera mostly just points at whoever is talking. The scenery becomes quite lovely however once Jamie is taken by three Chilean brothers (Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva, Agustín Silva) to the coast. Along the way they search for San Pedro cacti from which to extract mescaline and find themselves picking up another errant American, a wildly flamboyant flake named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann). Jamie actually invited Crystal to join in on their excursion when the two met at the aforementioned house party, but he forgot all about their encounter sometime between inviting hookers over to his place for supper and sleeping in. When Crystal turns up as planned Jamie keeps trying to ditch her, but the brothers, far more gentlemanly than Jamie, insist on letting her stay.
With those brothers relegated mostly to the background, alas, Crystal Fairy mainly focuses itself on the contrast between the damned Yankees: Jamie, the selfish if amusing and intermittently affable prick, and Crystal, the sort of cosmic traveler who blesses objects, claims past-life recognition, is ostentatiously down with nudism—at one point, after catching sight of her ample bush, Jamie dubs her Crystal Hairy—and, for all her attempts to impose New Agey rituals upon every situation, is just a very nice person. By the film’s end, which involves a rather forced moment of deeper sharing between our quintet of hallucinating campers, we’ll see that Jamie and Crystal really aren’t so different after all. The script is pretty undercooked, but the performances feel very lived in, the character types and their drug experiences resonate, and after a few early scenes that make it uncomfortably easy to mock Silva’s sole female character, the film finishes with a gesture of genuine empathy for all involved. Unimaginative, but not a bad trip.