'Cyrus': Less is Sometimes More

Benefiting greatly from its mumblecore medium, Cyrus finds its charm in its minimalist approach to filmmaking.


Director: Jay and Mark Duplass
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei
Length: 91 minutes
Studio: Scott Free Productions
Year: 2010
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual material
Release Date: 2010-12-14

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.