Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 27 April 2010
Source Fox Searchlight 35mm print
Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston
Cyrus is a somewhat irresolute departure for the Duplass brothers, whose previous films – the horror film Baghead, and their low-budget debut The Puffy Chair – are characterized by their matter-of-fact narrative impetus and non-professional actors. These early films are quite accomplished at gleaning authentic moments of conflict and drama from common social scenarios. Although this approach is further exercised in their new film, the sense of authenticity is spare and, for the first time, contrived.
This, in other words, is their first film with popular Hollywood talent. The masthead boasts John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill in the title role. On one hand, Cyrus is a benchmark in the Duplass’ career; it is their first industry film, and will open in marquee theaters. But their growth has come at the cost of their integrity as independent filmmakers. This, their newest and soon to be most seen film, is so filled with famous people that it’s hard so see past their faces and to fully realize their contexts or their emotions.
The main character is John, a lonely, middle-aged man whose best friend is his ex-wife. She, we’re informed in the opening scene, is newly engaged. John’s insecurity is manifested in a relay of visual gags, culminating in an impassioned, off-key rendition of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” at a party. Because John is portrayed by Reilly, we laugh at how he relieves his desperations instead of fully sympathizing with them. This laughter doesn’t suit some of the more tender scenes, especially once he meets Molly, portrayed by Tomei, a beautiful woman who seems to instantly understand him, and she immediately reciprocates his interest. Their relationship is cemented in a matter of days, and at a dinner date, when he expresses his relief to her, a flurry of compositions isolate their penetrative gazes into each other’s eyes.
Things are confounded when John meets Cyrus, Molly’s son. Any scene between John and Cyrus plays like a comedy on the verge of becoming a Tom & Jerry conflict—Cyrus will glare at John with harmless menace, and John, forgetting his point in a train of thought, stares back, dumbfounded. This subdued hostility calibrates a comedic tension, and this tension is pleasurable because we ultimately want to see them at each other’s throats—which, of course, they will be by the film’s end.
Cyrus works fine as a comedy – it’s undoubtedly spurred the most laughter at this year’s IFFB – but it’s the pretense that bothers me: John is crafted in a way to encourage our sympathy, but we spend the film entertained by his misfortunes. This is out of line with The Puffy Chair, in which the relationship between a group of characters is told with such unpretentious commitment to character that their story becomes vivid and captivating. Cyrus, in contrast, decontextualizes its characters, simplifying them into mere catalysts for comedy.
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