Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 02, 2010 10:05 pm 
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The elephant in the room

Cyrus is one of those stories about an otherwise promising new relationship threatened by the cumbersome excess baggage one person brings along. In this case that baggage is another human being: a big, fat adult child called Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who, at twenty, still lives with his mother, with whom he's so close it's almost incestuous. With this movie the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, who wrote and directed, move away from their former territory of the micro-budget indie filmmaking group known as Mumblcore, into the realm of an Apatow comedy. Jonah Hill, of Knocked Up and Superbad, as well as the current Get Him to the Greek, is a mainstay of the Apatow stable. This time the schlub he's playing isn't looking to get laid, only to keep his mom from doing so; and he plays it straight this time, not for laughs. This becomes a movie about stasis. And it also remains stuck between two genres. Some sparks fly, and the audience enjoys that, but somehow this ends by seeming something of a missed opportunity. It's neither a trail-blazing drama, nor a riotous comedy. It's just a big tease. The dangerous, obstructive situation is something the filmmakers play with successfully for an hour or so, and then don't seem to know what to do with. And the action just fizzles out.

Mumblecore tends to deal with twenty- or thirty-somethings' mating games and job dilemmas depicted in dialogue that feels rough and improvised. This time things are totally different because the Duplass brothers are working with famous actors. Cyrus keeps things simple, but it's very sure of itself -- except that it doesn't finally decide where to go. It lacks the authentic flavor of Mumblcore, and it's not broadly drawn or funny enough for Apatow; what's more, it lacks the final sense of resolution of comedy. Cyrus has a very forceful series of scenes, but they develop the situation only up to a point.

People laugh watching Cyrus, but it doesn't try to be funny so much as embarrassing. It verges on the Todd Solondz-lite of Mike White, whose funny-peculiar, funny-creepy edge it duplicates; but it lacks White's droll range of characters.

John (John C. Reilly) is a lonely Guy, seven years divorced and still unable to move on. (Reilly gives John his usual warmth, but the writing doesn't flesh him out.) He relies a lot (abnormally much, in fact -- he's odd too) on his ex-wife and co-worker Jamie (the always suave Catherine Keener), who's about to get married. At Jamie's urging, John goes to a party and he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) and magically they immediately hit it off and she goes home with him. But she leaves in the night. And she does that again when she comes back for a date.

We soon find out why. Molly's unnaturally tied to Cyrus, her large, rotund twenty-year-old son who still lives with her. It's not clear if Cyrus actually does anything; he composes synthesizer music. Even the composing Molly shares in. He is not in school. He never calls his mother "mother," always "Molly."

The awkwardness of the situation keeps you watching. With John at Molly's house for their second evening together, Cyrus goes into the bathroom while his mother is taking a shower, thus signaling their inappropriate (and for John threatening) intimacy. Later that night when John has stayed over and he and Molly are asleep, Cyrus has a screaming fit that awakens them and Molly runs to comfort him. It's clearly impossible for John and Molly to have private time together. Any sane man would run from this situation, but we understand John's neediness. For seven years he's been alone, and at last he's found a woman he really likes who likes him. What a pity!

Things go back and forth, but there's no real resolution. Cyrus the movie is as narrow as it is effective -- up to a point. The strong, polished actors contrast with the obtrusive in-and-out zoom of the Duplasses' hand-held camera, which here feels annoying and unnecessary. It's an artificial holdover from the brothers' previous low-budget indie work. Only here the tentativeness and naturalism are gone. There's something slick about the movie. It has another obtrusive tic: whenever Molly and John make declarations to each other about their feelings, we see them together, but the lines are in voice-over, as if anything romantic is merely tacked-on.

John could hardly be unaware of how huge a threat Cyrus is to his connecting with Molly, and vice versa, but at first John and Cyrus circle around each other politely with nothing untoward happening except the odd disappearance of an essential piece of clothing. But after a while longer something slips and the gloves are off. Cyrus seems dangerous, potentially unhinged as well as incestuous. But he and John are both cowardly lions, not strong or mean enough to go over the top. If one of them did, things might not end up so muddled.

The movie seems afraid to carry things all the way. It lacks an edge, and its resolution is soft and fuzzy. While in this it's like Mumblecore films, which tend just to end, such an approach doesn't suit comedy. Cyrus ventures far out of Mumblecore territory -- without entering anywhere else very definite. The result is far from a total loss. The filmmaking is solidly competent, the scenes are clearly -- perhaps too clearly -- written; the cast is fine. Cyrus is worthy of our attention, even though it ultimately somewhat disappoints, winding up with neither its dilemma nor its characters fully developed. This would be only a small fraction of a Mike Leigh film, and it would be resolved. The Duplass brothers are lazy filmmakers. They haven't at all got the keen observation of Andrew Bujalski.

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