Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Cyrus" is Nothing to Cringe At

"Cyrus" is one of the 2010 titles I had been dreading. I'm not a big fan of the Idiot Manchild genre of comedy, and "Cyrus" appeared to have all the earmarks of one. The title character, played by Jonah Hill, is a hefty young man in his twenties who has never left home and enjoys a too-close relationship with his single mother, Molly (Marissa Tomei). He serves as a primary adversary for John (John C. O'Reilly), a divorcee who is finally emerging from a long romantic rut and wants to pursue a relationship with Molly. At first John and Cyrus are perfectly civil with each other, but as John and Molly grow closer, Cyrus grows more hostile, the situation escalates, and finally all out war is declared. The plot may seem simple and familiar, but the execution is great.

The nice thing about "Cyrus" is that none of the characters are idiots. They all have their personality flaws, and display certain traits that point to some deeper personal issues, but nobody is especially dull or unreasonable. Rather, John, Molly, and Cyrus are all articulate, self-aware, and they communicate with each other very well. Neither are they cartoon caricatures, who will resort to violence at the drop of a hat or engage in over-the-top behavior simply for the sake of getting a laugh. This doesn't mean that there are no laughs in the movie. There are plenty. But "Cyrus" operates largely in the realm of low-key observational humor, eschewing crassness and humiliation tactics in favor of subtler stuff. When something more typically farcical does happen, there's a nice realism to the dialogue, the interactions and reactions, that set the movie apart. At the same time, the dramatic side of the story gets just as much care and attention. The film spends a significant amount of its running time setting up John and Molly's romance, and Cyrus doesn't even appear onscreen until at least twenty minutes in.

I was surprised how much I liked and became emotionally invested in all the characters. Hill and O'Reilly both give performances that can be seen as more sincere variations on their more oafish, shallow roles. When you take away the extremes usually found in a mainstream comedy, it's easier to see how sad and emotionally vulnerable these guys are. Cyrus is creepy, relying on deceit and passive-aggressive behavior to sabotage his mother's relationship. However, you understand why he is the way he is, and that he acts out of desperation, not any sort of innate meanness. John is actually more awkward than Cyrus, still clingy with his patient ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), and a bit of a social disaster at the start of the movie. We root for him to better himself and take the high road, because he comes across as a real person, rather than a walking source of pratfalls. Molly gets the least amount of development, which is an unfortunately necessity because of the way the plot works. However, she certainly isn't any less damaged or less interesting than the other two, and I wanted to see more of her.

This is my first encounter with the work of the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who are among the founders of the low-budget "mumblecore" movement, and have become fixtures of the indie cinema circuit. I'm convinced of their talent as writers, but not as directors yet. Their style is starkly realistic, including many shots with handheld digital cameras. There are a few places where the camera movement is distracting, especially the quick-zooms on characters' faces. Apparently they toned down their usual mumblecore aesthetic for "Cyrus" to make it more palatable to mainstream audiences, but there's still a very unfiltered, stripped-down sensibility to the production that fits the scope of the story. They get the tone right, which is vital, and I was surprised at how naturally the emotional ending played out. There's no cynicism here, a rarity these days, which I appreciated very much.

It's hard to call "Cyrus" a great film, because it's such a small story of very limited scope and ambition. It's a very good one, no doubt, and gives me hope that perhaps the American dramedy is isn't limited to Judd Apatow's vulgarities, or the fanciful whims of Wes Anderson and his hipster brethren, or the defensive sarcasm of Noah Baumbach and Reitman the Younger. They're not in the same league yet, but I think I like where these Duplass guys are going, and I'll be on the lookout for their future films.

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