[16 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Three decades ago, families in freefall were reserved for cinematic dramatization. From Kramer vs. Kramer‘s take on divorce and child custody to Ordinary People‘s interpretation of death and dysfunction, no one was treating the end of interpersonal nuclear relationships with a chuckle. Fast forward to 2010 and the Brothers Duplass (Jay and Mark) are hoping the audiences howl at their look inside the weird, unpredictable world of lonely men on the rebound, adult boys with abandonment issues, and a mother/lover who enables them both. Entitled Cyrus and slowly making its way across theaters nationally, it represents a “mainstreaming” of the ‘mubblecore’ that the duo have been infamous for. It also argues that, like 30 years ago, some subjects just aren’t cut out for comedy, let alone sustainable laughs.
The movie centers around an unusual love “triangle” between a divorced 40-something free-lance editor named John (John C. Reilly), a similarly aged single mom named Molly (Marisa Tomei), and her veal like 21 year old New Age musician wannabe son Cyrus (Jonah Hill). At first, the relationship seems muddled by apprehensions on both sides. He doesn’t want to divulge his part in his past break-up as well as a life in desperate search for a sensible partner. She thinks having an adult son still living at home will put off any potential suitor. Luckily, John likes Cyrus and, at first, it looks like the feeling is mutual. But slowly, over time, we see Molly’s onerous offspring lie, connive, and manipulate the budding relationship to the point where our couple calls it quits - if only temporarily. Of course, the make-up is just as complicated and crazy as the break-up, thanks of course to Cyrus.
Indeed, the last half of the movie is made up of the continuing battle of will and wits between John and Cyrus. During these doggerel give and takes, the Duplass’s find the funny business the rest of the movie lacks. Indeed, Cyrus is much more melancholy than hilarious for most of its running time. A lot of this comes directly from the performances of Reilly and Tomei. They play distressed and co-dependent so well, come across as so needy and needed, that we really don’t know why this courtship should be comical. But it’s more than that. A perfect example of the misplaced ambitions here comes when John first meets Cyrus. Wanting to “impress” him, the boy brags on his musical skills and then plays one of his New Age compositions. We expect some pompous aural drivel that indicates his misguided belief in his talents - and then the music starts…and it’s good. Damn good. In fact, Cyrus could easily be a success in his chosen profession. So where’s the joke in that?
Or what about the relationship that John has with his tolerant ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener). She’s sainted, and willing to put up with his stunted shenanigans, but there is real chemistry between the two that Cyrus doesn’t quite know what to do with. Of course, this is the result of the Duplass’s oddball way of moviemaking. While “scripted”, the actors are given large leeway to improvise, sometimes adlibbing an entire sequence or story point. By allowing this, the pair preempts any sense of control and in turn indulges their performers’ every idiosyncrasy. For Jonah Hill’s Cyrus, it’s a godsend. The rotund Superbad star turns his arrested post-adolescent into something sinister - unhinged and not wholly connected to the reality he hopes to maintain. When he confesses to John, it’s so specious it’s sickening. When he exploits his mother’s guilt, we want him arrested.
Yet for some reason, none of this is particularly clever or fresh. We’ve seen people like John before. Molly may have nutty nurturing ideas, but her late in life look for love really resonates. Even Cyrus seems recognizable, the basement dwelling dweeb whose simply moved upstairs and into every facet of his freely participating parent’s existence. The conflict comes out of an understandable dynamic - a fear of loss coupled with a sense of entitlement and exclusivity. So what, exactly, is Cyrus supposed to offer us that’s truly novel? If it’s the giggles, it goes a long way to provide far too few. If it’s perception, it’s skewed excessively over toward an obvious hipster irony. Granted, the emotions are substantial, but the events that provide them feel like leftovers from a mid-90s group therapy session as envisioned by a lesser version of the Groundlings.
Even worse, the Duplasses have yet to master anything remotely resembling the language of film. Simply setting up a camera and letting your actors talk in front of it is not the highest example of framing, composition, or mise-en-scene. Sure, some can point to the unobtrusive POV approach and argue ‘realism’, but then why fictionalize anything here? Why not simply find a family dealing with similar issues and make a documentary? In that case, the fly on the wall technique is mandatory for getting to the truth. In Cyrus, a feeling of authenticity is not the problem. Instead, we are being sold a comedy that is so far from funny that it’s almost an insult to refer to either entity as exemplary of the other.
Indeed, Cyrus has a dark side that the Duplasses dangle out there like a carrot, only to snatch it back time and time again. Don’t think so? Check out the final scene, a sequence so ambiguous that our title character could end up doing several things - some of them not very good - once he finishes his forlorn walk up the driveway. In thought provoking ways, this is the movie Cyrus actually is - a frightening Bad Seed style thriller in which a wounded, unstable young man will stop at nothing to prevent his mother from marrying a middle aged romantic interloper - and we do many ANYTHING. Instead, someone got it in their head that this material is actually hilarious, a jokey update on the familial discourse that colors everyone’s world circa 2010. Huh?
Perhaps, if your life has been one unending struggle between step parents, biological dead beats, shifts in siblings, and the occasional court appearance, you’ll chortle your way through Cyrus. For all others, this will seem like a strange way of comically celebrating the otherwise complicated (and often hurtful) topics involved. Aesthetically, serious clearly trumps silly - at least, this time.