Phil on Film Index

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review - Cyrus

Cyrus has an intriguing premise and a first-rate cast, but Jay and Mark Duplass – who wrote and directed the film together – seem unwilling or unable to develop their film to its full potential. We're left with half of a decent movie, with that opening section seeming to set up a more compelling film than the one we're subsequently presented with. The film's most frustrating drawback is its failure to delve into its characters and their relationships in any kind of realistic way. For example, it's hard to understand why Molly (Marisa Tomei) is attracted to John (John C Reilly) at a party after hearing him make a drunkenly confessional speech and then crossing his path outside while he pisses into the bushes. Even John seems stunned by the development ("Why are you flirting with me? I look like Shrek!" he exclaims), but Molly is taken enough by him to end up sleeping at his apartment.

Left in a rut after learning of his ex wife's (Catherine Keener) forthcoming nuptials, John is delighted at this turn of events but also wary, and when he follows Molly home one night he discovers the big catch. Her son Cyrus is 21 years-old and very, very weird. He's played by Jonah Hill in a nicely modulated performance that finds the right note of ambiguity in Cyrus' too-earnest politeness and weird intensity. John is immediately unsettled by this odd character, even if he can't quite put his finger on what it is that feels off with him, but as he spends more time at Molly's house, the relationship he observes just gets stranger. Cyrus blithely wanders in and out of the bathroom when his mother is taking a shower, and Molly insists on sleeping with the doors open at night, as her son is prone to nightmare-induced screaming fits in the middle of the night. He's also jealous, possessive and devious, and the tension between John and Cyrus quickly escalates into a tit-for-tat feud.

All of which is very bad news for Marisa Tomei, one of the most beautiful and likeable actresses currently working in the movies, who is forced to take her practically non-existent character and spend most of the film as a passive observer while these two men squabble over her. Molly never questions the fact that John only discovers Cyrus after stalking her through the night; she never seems to notice that her son's behaviour is particularly odd; she never does much of anything, except smile sweetly and dimly and act as a catalyst for the central drama. The relationship (at times bordering on the incestuous) between Molly and Cyrus is not explored and her relationship with John never convinces. This is not the fault of John C Reilly either, who is as affable as ever in the leading role and whose befuddlement at the situations he finds himself in is the basis for most of the film's funny moments, but these fine actors have been given nothing to play.

Jay and Mark Duplass are making their first step out of the mumblecore movement with Cyrus, but they have retained their old filmmaking sensibilities. Shot in a scruffy fashion, with occasional quick zooms zeroing in on the actors, the film feels loose and shambling, and perhaps that's part of the problem. A film like Cyrus surely needed to be tighter, to drive its core conflict towards boiling point, but the Duplass brothers seem happy enough for it to drift and the film lacks the abrasive tension that one might expect it to possess. Instead of capitalising on the darker and more potentially anarchic aspects of its plot, Cyrus settles for a predictable narrative arc (will there be a big bust-up between John and Cyrus at the wedding? Will all of the characters learn lessons from this and become better people in the end? You bet). The filmmakers might make a token gesture towards an unconventional sensibility, but their picture actually grows less adventurous and less interesting with every passing minute.