Saturday, July 10, 2010

Duplass Filmmaking: CYRUS

I’m sure it’s a backhanded compliment, or, more likely, not a compliment at all, to say that the films of the brothers Duplass always leave me with a deeply felt sense of nothing. From their first film, the light but likable road-trip film Puffy Chair (2005), to Baghead (2008), their sophomore effort and experiment in meta-horror, I find their work to be slight whiffs. They’re not entirely without merit, and I basically enjoyed them both, the former more than the latter, but they don’t stick. With their new film Cyrus, the brothers have made a step into mainstream filmmaking, of a sort, with a pseudo-indie featuring big names (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener) while keeping the shaggy slightness of their previous films entirely intact. In fact, Cyrus is probably the best of their three features, despite ending one scene too soon where Puffy Chair found satisfying open-endedness and Baghead became self-defeating in overambitious genre tweaking.

But, before I go any farther, it must be asserted that Cyrus is in fact an often enjoyable movie. Opening with Reilly as a depressed divorcee, drunkenly seeking a new girlfriend at a party to which his ex-wife (Keener) invited him, the movie immediately makes clear that the loose, improvisational, often casually funny Duplass style has remained intact. Singing obnoxiously along to the hosts’ stereo and comparing himself to Shrek somehow wins Reilly the affection of a very warm and caring woman (Tomei). They start dating, but the other shoe drops, as it must in screen romances, when it is revealed that Tomei has, in the form of a casually threatening Jonah Hill, a 21-year-old unemployed mama’s boy living with her. Their relationship is very close and Hill is not about to let some interloper trash it.

I laughed enough at Cyrus, but the comedy seems almost beside the point. The acting here creates characters that feel raw and untamed. The exchanges and interactions between them, reportedly heavily improvised, are fumbling and offhandedly, almost accidentally, humorous. Reilly and Tomei create characters that are immediately sympathetic and understandable. It is this sympathy that pulls me through, rolling over my quibbles with the plotting as the film finds a comfort zone in its plot points then seems to get stuck on repeat for a bit before it can move on.

I liked the leads; it’s what kept me watching. But what kept me interested was Jonah Hill who is funny, yes, but also a creepy and deeply strange character here. The son’s attempts to insert himself between his mother and her boyfriend to slowly sabotage a burgeoning relationship are subtle and devious emotional manipulation. It’s to the credit of all involved that the film never goes broad with his antics. It’s slowly creepy and scarily simple the ways he unsettles Reilly and plays with Tomei’s emotions.

So this is a funny, odd, enjoyable little movie, well-acted and worthy of attention. That much is worth reiterating before Cyrus becomes doomed to be known as that movie with the crazy zooms, as some cinephiles would have you know. But those zooms are weird, often seemingly unmotivated and distracting in their eagerness to suddenly leap back or plunge in. At the movie’s best, the zooms are barely noticeable; at its worst, they’re off-putting.

I first saw Cyrus at a festival screening some months ago, catching up with it again just the other day as it moves through an expanding release. Both times, I found myself having a good time, more or less, but the months between found my memory of enjoyment evaporating. This is a movie that delivers fun on impact, but fades fast. In that way, this film is definitely of a piece with the Duplass brothers’ other films. They’re charming guys and smart filmmakers. I look forward to the day they make a film that lingers.

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