‘Cyrus’: Less is Sometimes More

[19 January 2011]

By Ben Travers

Easily the most commercially friendly film of the budding mumblecore movement, Cyrus only managed a little more than $7 million at the box office this summer.  As a movie fan that follows every dollar spent on his favorite and least favorite films, I’m about to stray a bit from my past proclamations and say that’s OK.  It’s OK that the Duplass’ brothers third feature film failed to connect with the wide audience it deserves.  It’s OK that American audiences chose to spend more of their hard-earned dollars on Grown Ups, The Last Airbender and yes, even Jonah Hex.  Why this exception to my fiscally relevant rule?  Cyrus is actually better-suited for the small screen.

That, too, actually violates another personal rule (every movie is better in theaters), but Cyrus is all about breaking with convention.  From its highly improvised script to its casually crafted shots, Mark and Jay Duplass have created a joyfully simple mini-masterpiece.  The plot is familiar, but is usually relegated to a side story instead of a feature’s focus.  Man meets woman.  Man loves woman.  Man meets woman’s son.  Man does not love woman’s son (and vica versa).  Problems ensue.  The Dupli and their wonderful cast create vibrant, emotionally compelling characters out of what could have been shoddy characterizations, and (as a writer, I hate to admit this) it’s at least in part because of the chosen production aesthetic.

Mumblecore, an American-bred independent filmmaking technique marked by low-budget productions and largely improvised scripts, is a relatively new medium without a break out film to hang its hat on – yet.  Cyrus, with its warm, highly relatable message and professional pedigree, could still be that film despite its lack of monetary support.  Normally, with mini-budgeted films, it’s the shoddy production value a wide audience has to overcome.  Not many people enjoy attached shadows, natural lighting, and digital video.  Mark and Jay Duplass don’t ask them to – they force them.  Each jostle, zoom, and any other hand-held identifier are carefully timed and executed to make you forget they even exist.  Instead of walking out nauseous and dazed, I doubt many will remember anything but a warm fuzzy feeling.

This internal glow is helped along by some terrific turns from John C. Reilly (who has really upped his game in the past decade), Marisa Tomei (always in top form), and Jonah Hill (surprise!).  Reilly turns down the comedic shtick he’s been somewhat successfully hawking since Talladega Nights, but still produces plenty of chuckles.  Perhaps peaking in an early drunken sing-a-long scene, Reilly inhabits John (the character’s name) with both backbone and heart.  Never too stern, never too silly, John is the perfect companion for Molly, a single mother who’s focused on her son her whole life.  Long enough, actually, as we find Molly in desperate need of third-party intervention.  John, a bit of an attention-whore himself, happily jumps into the mother-son duo’s odd bonding sessions only to soon find he may have moved in a little early.

Cyrus (Hill) is superlatively captured as always a day shy of too far gone.  He’s surprisingly smart, constantly scheming, and devilishly pitting John and Molly against one another to earn back his mother’s sole affection.  His Achilles’ heal is his inability to function outside this extremely limited world, and it comes back to bite him in some deep ways.  Hill captures Cyrus’ simultaneous luster and insanity with an extraordinary amount of realism.  At first, he seems a little off but still a sweet kid.  Then the layers start to peel, and the illusion is shattered.  Reilly and Hill’s ensuing battle of wits never leaves the realm of possibility, but is just as side-splitting as anything found in more mainstream movies (think Will Ferrell vs. Reilly in Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, but with intelligence and subtlety).

The one drawback to this otherwise wonderful DVD is an almost absent bonus features section.  Only two deleted scenes are included, and, though good, they hardly cover everything surrounding this unique production.  Mark and Jay provide detailed introductions for both scenes with legitimate explanations why they were cut from the final film and why they were included as bonus content for curious viewers.  The first scene is engaging, funny, and pretty creative.  The second is rough, touching, and a little bit too much, and both are explained away adequately the directing pair.  I don’t understand why there aren’t more outtakes, alternate scenes, or extended cuts in a movie filled with improvisation, though.  The disc also could have benefitted from a directors’ commentary track, a fact made more evident by the clear and solicitous manner in which the two brothers discuss their film before the deleted scenes.

Perhaps the Duplass brothers expect their little film to make it big, and thus excluded a lot of content in favor of waiting for the inevitable special edition a few years from now.  If so, I truly hope Cyrus finds the audience it deserves and fast.  It’s a wonderful film and a testament to what future gems the mumblecore movement can produce.  If only it had the extras to match its main feature.  After all, what good is a movie best made for home viewing if it doesn’t have a DVD package worthy of its pedigree?  I guess it really was better in theaters.  My bad.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/135600-cyrus/