By David Zuckerman
(Jay & Mark Duplass, U.S., 2010)
Considering Cyrus is supposed to usher Mark and Jay Duplass into the fray of mainstream studio filmmaking, there is an admirable lack of trumpet-blaring going on. Following up the brothers’ previous efforts to locate the humorous within the awkward, Cyrus is a sweet, modest, unremarkable film, propped up by seasoned actors playing quirky and “real.” Take John C. Reilly, for starters. Aside from the camera’s little “crash-zoom” punctuation mark (you’ll understand when you see), Reilly is the most artful thing happening in this picture.
As desperate divorcé John, who falls for attractive Molly (Marisa Tomei) only to discover her grown son (Jonah Hill as the Oedipally challenged title character) guarding the proverbial castle gates, Reilly is too warm, too authentic, too downtrodden to dislike. In an inversion on the meet-cute scenario, John is urinating in some bushes outside the house party to which his ex-wife (a peripheral Catherine Keener) has dragged him, when he first meets Molly. Surprised to find such a charming and attractive woman coming onto him, John, inebriated and past the point of putting on airs, responds to Molly’s advances with the disarming: “Me? I’m like Shrek . . . what are you doing in the forest with Shrek?” It’s lines like this that make Reilly so easy to like. He’s the opposite of an asshole. Whatever his appearance, he is neither monstrous nor dumb. Even if the setup of these two losers pitted over one goddess is a bit rote, when Reilly is given space (and the Duplass Brothers are good at giving their actors space), he’s capable of exuding an abject sweetness that carries a scene.
In Cyrus, the men-children clinging to their mothers and ex-wives are not completely clueless, but rather somewhat anxious and analytical. John is a video editor, Cyrus a “New Age” composer. They live in contemporary Los Angeles and go for walks in Elysian Park. They’re outcasts, but not that far out. As conceits, Cyrus’s inability to leave the nest and his “closeness” to his mother (they share a bathroom, she tucks him into bed) are most fruitful and perverse before we have any idea how far Hill’s creepy poker-faced regressive is capable of going. Of course, the specter of incest only serves as the catalyst for awkward humor, not as any kind of real threat.
For what it’s worth, the etymology of the word “Cyrus” runs the gamut from “the sun,” “young,” and “caregiver,” to “humiliator of the enemy in a verbal contest.” In this contest, Cyrus begins by stealing John’s shoes with cryptic glee, before settling into the more straightforward “are you fucking my mother?” and then on to full-out testosterone-driven antics like a wrestling match in a pile of gifts at a wedding.
Underneath the mainstream comic aspirations of this film is a search for authenticity with a capital A. From the casting down to the raw shooting style, the Duplass brothers seem to want us to feel that aesthetic pedestrianism is the correlate of authenticity. This is both the brothers’ strength and their weakness. On the one hand, the film feels complacent and lacking in any really great ideas. On the other hand, it’s this very give-and-go-with-banality ethos that leads to subtle funny moments from performers whose unadorned qualities feel modern.
In his book Ingrid Caven, the French writer Jean-Jacques Schuhl pointed out that it is the previous generation that owns the makeup-heavy, mysterious, distant face of a Dietrich or a Moreau, while the new face—the face brought close by high-def—is one of clear, sharp, recognizable features. An Elsa Zylberstein, to use Schuhl’s example, or a Catherine Keener, in the American setting.
Cyrus is indeed grounded solidly within the American setting. The brothers are far from being too radical for the studio system. On the contrary, one imagines they will fit in quite well. Why so much of what gets mileage out of Sundance and SXSW is fundamentally provincially American in scope, I don’t get. Personally, I have yet to see any meaningful dialogue between mumblecore and the international cinema, but that’s another subject. The point is not only how far we are able to expand our scope, but also how far we are able to dig down into the dirt beneath our tennis shoes. What is it about our “funny/fucked-up” suburban milieux that make grown sons want to sleep next to their mothers? My worry is that an awkward laugh tends to precede a silence, not a conversation.