The combination of summer-movie silliness and comedic actor Jonah Hill — best known for the likes of “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” — would seem to add up to one thing: another Judd Apatow-like embrace of moronic manhood tinged with a hint of clumsy romance. After all, that’s exactly the case with the first Hill movie of the season, “Get Him to the Greek.”
But that doesn’t quite describe “Cyrus.” Lower in budget and more melancholic in tone than the average multiplex comedy, the film pits man against young man as Cyrus (Hill) declares emotional war on the guy (John C. Reilly) trying to date his single mom (Marisa Tomei). While that plot could lead to conventional comedy cliches, “Cyrus” attempts to plow beneath the surface of the would-be father-son relationship.
No doubt, that can be credited to writer/director brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, who came of filmmaking age in Austin, Texas, before relocating to New York and now Los Angeles. With their indie films “The Puffy Chair” (2005) and “Baghead” (2008), the two made quite a splash on the film-festival circuit and even got tagged as the leaders of “mumblecore,” a micro-movement of lo-fi films with unknown 20-something actors.
With “Cyrus,” which is being distributed by Fox Searchlight, the Duplass brothers are edging closer to Hollywood sensibilities — but not too close.
Mark Duplass, 33, says the script was written with Reilly — a popular character and comedic actor whose rugged features have become familiar through such films as “Magnolia,” “Chicago,” “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers” — in mind.
“We didn’t start it that way, but every time we imagined him in it, it got funnier,” Duplass says. “We were very interested in working with pro actors, but they had to have an awareness of the types of movies we were making. We wanted to make the same movies we make all along, but we wanted to make it with a good studio and great actors.”
Enter Jonah Hill.
“For (the character of) Cyrus, we had no one in mind,” Duplass says. “We had a hard time imagining who would be a formidable force to go with John C. Reilly. So it took us hanging out with Jonah, and it was ‘Whoa, here he is.’ Jonah’s smart and so evolved. He’s really impressive.”
Duplass admits that with Hill’s name attached, many moviegoers might show up expecting a different type of film. “If you’re not paying attention to what this movie is, you could expect a broader comedy,” Duplass says. “We love ‘Get Him to the Greek,’ but this movie is a comedy rooted in a lot of emotional material and rooted in realism. We find these characters to be hilarious as they fumble through their awkward lives. Hopefully, when (people) see the trailers, they’ll realize what it is.”
There seems to be a mystique of sorts attached to filmmaking brothers — the Wachowskis (“The Matrix”) and the Coens (“No Country for Old Men”) are notoriously secretive — but Mark says he and his brother don’t engage in a lot of drama with each other.
“Jay and I are bizarrely non-confrontational with each other,” Mark Duplass says. “We’re very respectful of the relationship and very aware that we need each other. The types of movies we make together are an alchemy of our personalities. If I went off on my own, I couldn’t make a movie a quarter as good as ‘Cyrus.’ Even when squabbles come up, they’re small.”
It looks like things are only going to get bigger for the Duplass boys from here. They’ve just finished “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” to be released next year, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon. And Mark also occasionally appears in front of the camera; he co-starred in the indie film “Humpday” last year and is a regular on the FX series “The League.”
“I really like it,” he says of being an actor. “It’s a lot less pressure for me. It’s a purely creative job, whereas filmmaking, there’s all the political stuff, the personality management, and there’s a lot more to do. It’s more rewarding making my own films, but the fun factor goes way up with acting.”
But one thing he is tired of is the term “mumblecore,” a tag the brothers didn’t used to mind as much.
“We’re starting to get sick of it,” he says. “With this movie, we feel it’s definitely not mumblecore. We just don’t want anyone to feel excluded, like it’s some intellectually elite film for mumblecore fans. We would like to extend the invite to everyone.”