Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cyrus. (2010) Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

It's not often that I'm completely thrown off by a movie. I usually like it or I don't, and I understand why I do or don't like it. Sometimes I walk away from a story knowing that I personally don't like it, but I can see why someone can. It's that subjective vs. objective distance that I'm trying to maintain, if only to understand what's going on in someone else's brain.

With Cyrus, it's my own brain I'm trying to figure out.

I'm a little befuddled over Cyrus. I'm dangling my feet on both sides of the fence. But the film, I feel, dangles its feet a little bit, too.

The film stars John C. Reilly as awkward nice-guy John, an aging washed out editor still in shambles from a divorce seven years ago. He says the divorce wasn't his choice, it was added to his life unwanted, though he does admit he was in some kind of a slump which his wife didn't want much to do with. His ex (Catherine Keener) remains his best friend, but now -- uh oh -- she's planning to remarry.

Her plans disrupt John's life and send him into an emotional chaos, not that he wasn't in a bit of chaos already (he claims he's been in a "tailspin" for some time). To make up for the bad news, she drags him out to a party where he takes her advice to finally move on, hitting on a few pretty ladies. Socially awkward, having not had a relationship in years, he tries to fumble into something new. The thinking is that someone else can make us whole, someone else can make us better -- someone else can heal us when we can't figure out healing on our own.

At one point he's told by one of the ladies, pointing out the friend she's talking to, "We're kind of having a conversation here."

"Yeah," John says. "I'm going to have some conversations, too, here, eventually..."

John drinks too much at the party but somehow jump starts the dance floor. He gets everyone dancing to Human League's "Don't You Want Me," which might also work well as his life's song.

John is tracked down and somehow met by Molly (Marisa Tomei, who would only date this guy in the movies) while urinating in the bushes outside. They chat, they click, they laugh a little bit, and he ends up bringing her home that night. They cap off the night with what he thinks was amazing sex, but she sneaks out when he falls asleep and leaves a note. It's a pattern she wants to continue the next night, except that John catches her in the act and follows her home, his headlights off behind her as he drives.

Is she married? Does she have a lover to get home to?

No. If you've seen the trailer for the film (and it was everywhere last year), you know that it's all about her son, Cyrus, played by Jonah Hill to perfection by remaining a bit of a mental enigma. Cyrus is twenty-two, still at home, still trying to find his way in life, but having an all-too-close relationship with mom -- one that isn't incestuous but remains clingy, with weird, lingering affections.

The remaining two-thirds of the film are about Cyrus's stealth-like moves in bringing the relationship between John and Molly to an end. He's never honest about his moves or his motives to his mom, who loves him to no end, though he calls her "Molly" and not "Mom". He wouldn't be honest about his desires to John, either, but after a few missteps John sees through Cyrus, and eventually there's the inevitable confrontation. The dialogue here is quite efficient -- they're able to make giant gestures in few words and little time. The tension between them escalates quickly.

It's a peaceful film for a story about tension between people, with an ending which is downright redemptive (now there's an over-used film word, but it certainly applies here), with examples of grace, reconciliation, and even growth. When it's all said and done, one might even describe the story as heartwarming. Maybe.

But I approach my reaction to Cyrus with great reservation. The characters are just strong enough to move the plot forward, but they carry at all times a shallow core -- not the fault of the characters but the fault of a script that won't bring more dimensions to their portrayal. They're simply not developed enough to make us dig in and give our hearts to it.

In a way, the characters remind me of Greenberg, a film I hated. In that film the character development was just enough to make you realize how much you couldn't stand its title character or his actions. But while it reminded me of that loathsome film, I admit I had stronger sympathetic feelings for each of the characters in Cyrus. Think of it as Greenberg-lite, with a touch of empathy. The characters in Cyrus, however underdeveloped they are, are still much more likeable than any of the folks in Greenberg. (Especially Ben Stiller, who made me cringe.)

It also feels a bit like The Squid and the Whale, which I almost hate as much as Greenberg but will go to bat for Jesse Eisenberg every time. He transcends a film that makes us not want to like it, bringing an intelligent performance almost as smart there as John is nice in Cyrus.

But then there's the cinematography, too, which makes heavy use of a hard zoom as if centered on Jim in "The Office". It wouldn't have been so bad had it not been used every seventeen seconds. It really feels like whiplash after a while, a hard zoom on John as he mulls over the actions of Cyrus, a hard zoom on Cyrus as he carefully plans his next step. The camera is trying way too hard in this film. It's trying so hard that it is noticeable, and it takes us out of the story from time to time.

So I'm stuck in terms of how I actually feel about Cyrus. I like what the mumblecore Duplass brothers are trying to do with the story, but I don't think they accomplished everything they set out for, and there are several distractions in the camera work and characters left unfleshed that there's a hollow ring at the core of what might otherwise be a wonderful story -- one about forgiveness, and overcoming the nastier side of handling uneasy relationships.

Is it possible to like the content of a film, but simply not the way it was delivered? That might be my strongest, most sure reaction to Cyrus.

I guess I'm figuring out my brain as I go.

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