Monday, July 12, 2010

Cyrus (2010, Jay and Mark Duplass)

Watching Cyrus, the latest from indie-world favorites the Duplass brothers, I was reminded of George Ratliff’s awesome Joshua, one of my favorite films of 2007. Not that the two movies were similar in look or feel, mind you, but both movies use popular genres to address anxieties that are fairly common. In Joshua, Ratliff tackled the worry faced by many fathers that the apple may fall disconcertingly far from the tree, while here the Duplasses take as their premise the anxiety faced by would-be stepfathers that they might not blend into their future families quite so smoothly as they had hoped. But the differences stop there, since Joshua is a sure-footed work from a filmmaker in full control, while Cyrus has been made by a pair of directing brothers who don’t seem to know where to progress from their promising idea.

The most obvious manifestation of the Duplasses’ tentativeness is their complete lack of facility with the camera. In their three films to date, the Duplass brothers have employed a handheld camera to underline their films’ ramshackle, lo-fi nature, but particularly in Cyrus, it seems they’ve confused this scruffiness with an honest-to-goodness aesthetic. Unfortunately, waving a digital camcorder around like a semi-distracted dad at his kids’ soccer game does not a style make. The Duplass brothers are convinced that nearly every moment that’s even remotely significant (and many that aren’t) needs to be punctuated by a quick zoom, but after one or two instances in the first couple of minutes this is merely annoying. There’s just no evidence that there’s an assured hand on the camera at any point during Cyrus, and the Duplasses would do well to consult the films of the Dardenne brothers or, more appropriately, Lukas Moodysson’s Together for tips on how to do it right.

This unease behind the camera wouldn’t be such an issue if the script was better- after all, last year’s Humpday, which starred one of the Duplass brothers, was no great shakes cinematically but was distinguished by its sharp screenplay. Unfortunately, once it lays down its premise, Cyrus isn’t thought through very well. Once the film has established the relationship between John (John C. Reilly) and Molly (Marisa Tomei) and introduced Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly son and semi-covert disrupter of their relationship, the Duplasses seem content to hit the obvious beats. There are many directions the Duplasses could have taken this premise, such as by steering it somewhere truly dark, or by making the rivalry between John and Cyrus subtle so that Molly couldn’t even detect it. Instead, the movie’s trajectory feels pretty formulaic, with the conflict coming to a boil, followed by a misunderstanding that briefly tears apart the couple, then some final-act redemption for Cyrus. It all feels too easy, as if in spite of the Duplasses’ ongoing commitment to grungy moviemaking is a mask for their desire to be comfortably Hollywood in their storytelling.

Trouble is, by aiming to bridge the gap between a no-budget Sundance favorite and a big-budget crowd-pleaser, Cyrus ends up scratching neither itch. It’s a shame, really, since the movie begins with a great deal of promise. The Duplasses wisely realized when making Cyrus that the movie wouldn’t have a prayer unless we were rooting for John and Molly’s relationship, and the movie’s opening does a fine job of making their courtship not only believable but highly sympathetic. Reilly has made a cottage industry of playing endearing schlubs, and just because he’s the obvious choice for this part doesn’t mean he’s not awesome at playing it. And Tomei is just as good in the role of a woman who’s finally dipping her toe back into the dating pool after spending most of her adult life raising her son (also, is it just me or is she getting hotter as she ages?). Even Hill is fine as Cyrus- the role is written more as a plot device than an actual character, but Hill’s performance goes beyond placid stillness and a thousand-yard stare to suggest some tumultuous goings-on below the surface. There’s so much that’s good in Cyrus that it’s a shame that the Duplass brothers don’t know what to do with it. Shame, really.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

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