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SXSW Review: Cyrus

March 16, 2010
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When Mumblecore Meets Mainstream

Cyrus premiered at the 2010 SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas at the Paramount theater.   The premiere was followed by a ribald Q&A session with cast and crew.

John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in CyrusMark and Jay Duplass caused a bit of a commotion at Sundance and SXSW in 2005 when their feature film The Puffy Chair debuted to rave reviews and serious buzz.  The brothers’ approach to filmmaking was so innovative that they had a new genre of film named after them: mumblecore.

Mumblecore is an indie genre characterized by  low budget, improvisation, “non-actor” actors, and plots dealing primarily with personal relationships. The brothers followed up The Puffy Chair with Baghead (2008.)

Even though Cyrus cannot be categorized as pure mumblecore, it is certainly heavily influenced by the Duplass brothers’ earlier films. The movie stars well known comedic actors Jonah Hill (Superbad) and John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), as well as Oscar winner Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler.)

John C. Reilly is wonderful as  John, a downtrodden divorced man who finds out that his ex-wife Jamie  (played by Catherine Keener) is getting remarried, and wants him to attend an engagement party.  Humiliating stuff for even the most confident of men, and John is far from confident.

He attends the party and proceeds to make an ass of himself “singing” karaoke. Molly (Tomei) is a party-goer who takes pity on the awkward man, and joins him singing karaoke.  An unlikely romance blossoms between sweet natured Molly and John.  When John confesses to Molly, “I am in a tailspin, I’m depressed, and lonely,” mere moments after meeting her, she doesn’t sprint for the hills, she finds it endearing.  John can’t believe his good fortune.  Then he meets Cyrus.

Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass wrote and directed Cyrus

Cyrus is Molly’s  21 year old son who still lives with his mom.  From the moment John meets Cyrus, it is apparent that Cyrus’s relationship with his mother is very, very inappropriate.  Cyrus calls his mom by her first name, and freely goes into the bathroom while his mother is showering.  The fireplace mantel prominently features a photo of Molly breastfeeding a toddler aged Cyrus.  Understandably, John is a little disarmed by Cyrus and Molly’s unique relationship.

For the duration of the movie, Cyrus tries to undermine John and Molly’s relationship.  Molly is oblivious to the sparring going on between the two behind her back, because neither man wants to fall out of her good graces.  Their war escalates to absurd levels, and the movie could easily have fallen into slapstick conventional fare, but under the direction of the Duplass brothers, the movie remains earnest and dark.  It is very funny, but the laughs are drawn from awkward situations and dark comedy.

Jonah Hill’s bone dry delivery works very well, and Cyrus definitely comes across as emotionally unhinged, but it is all due to subtle character tics.  For instance, Cyrus plays a song (ambient, I might add) on his keyboard for John.  The entire time he plays the song, he never looks at his keyboard.  He intensely stares John in the eye the whole time, never breaking his gaze away.  It’s jarring, because a normal person just doesn’t do that.  It’s funny and creepy all at the same time.

This is a welcome departure for Hill, who I always enjoy in all his comedies, but it’s good to see him stretch a bit out of his usual comfort zone. Tomei brings a nice feminine touch to the movie, and somehow she makes it believable that she could actually not know what was going on, without coming across as stupid. Reilly is charming and works well as a leading man.  I was glad to see him have an opportunity to play a dramatic role like this.

As a dark comedy, the movie works exceedingly well.  My only complaint would be the camera work.  The Duplass brothers use lots of zoom in/zoom out shots that take a little getting used to. Aside from that, Cyrus is a funny and at times chilling movie about relationship dynamics and male competition.

Here is the official Cyrus trailer:

Rating 4/5

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