by Brendan Peterson Film Horizon Line

Cyrus — Jay and Mark Duplass

August 5, 2010

I love Mumblecore! Well, I hate the word “Mumblecore,” but I love many of the films that get this label. These are films from young American directors like Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, and the Duplass brothers, among others. They’re films that focus on people over plot and that value improvisation over narrative cliches. Think of them as philosophical cousins to the Dogme95 movement, but without all the pesky rules. Mark and Jay Duplass are already the masterminds behind two exceptionally entertaining low-budget gems of this genre, The Puffy Chair and Baghead. Popular with festival crowds and discerning cine-freaks, these flicks were overlooked by the movie-going masses. With Cyrus, the Duplass bros go mainstream, sort of. Working with A-list actors and a real budget, this was a chance for these indie darlings to preach at the multiplex pulpit. The reality is that fans of blockbusters will be dazed and confused by the awkward rhythms and realistic ambiguity of the human relationships captured here. For the rest of us, Cyrus is a delightful blend of twisted comedy and tender melancholy served in an unassuming, low-key package.

John C. Reilly plays sad-sack 40-something John, still stinging from a divorce seven years ago. John’s ex, Jamie (Catherine Keener), tired of having to babysit this overgrown adolescent, convinces John to leave the confines of his dumpy apartment and go to a party. Next thing you know John is sucking down Red Bull vodkas and telling a nervous-looking woman, “I have so much to give. I’m a blast.” She’s not convinced. Just when it seems that John is destined for another night sharing the bed with his laptop, an angel appears in the form of Molly (Marisa Tomei). Beautiful, funny, and smart, Molly makes a lasting impression when she joins John on the makeshift dance floor for an exhilarating rendition of “Don’t You Want Me.” Wow! Sounds too good to be true, right? Of course, it is. Enter Molly’s 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who lives at home, spends his days composing ambient new wave club music, and isn’t open to this new relationship. The film focuses on the struggles of this messy threesome.

It all sounds like a bad sitcom, but the filmmakers and their actors forgo easy jokes and obvious oedipal observations to find the emotional truth in this uncomfortable, believable situation. Luckily, there isn’t too much plot to get in the way of the characters’ patient development. This is a film about humans navigating the intense intricacies of chaotic relationships. You know, like real life. For the most part, the Duplass bros capture the action with a relaxed, intimate style. Handheld cameras zoom into faces and shift about nervously, heightening the drama and communicating the emotion of each scene. In many instances, the camera lingers a beat or two longer than expected, waiting, anticipating what might come next. Ironically, the film only loses its momentum when the filmmakers try to move the narrative forward. An over-the-top wedding fight scene teeters on slapstick and feels out of place in the midst of the subtle, passive-aggressive mental warfare that comes before. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. At one point, Molly calls John “raw and honest,” a sincere compliment that underscores how different he is from her normal suitors. In many ways, I felt the same about Cyrus.