The so-called mumblecore movement, pioneered by the likes of Andrew Bujalski with his films Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation and Joe Swanberg with LOL and Hannah Takes The Stairs, eschewed any kind of aesthetic precision for a more ‘grab a camera, make a movie’ approach. Booms would appear in shot, the focus would frequently readjust, and the actors would be encouraged to improvise around skeletal scripts. Sometimes insightful, often neurotically self-involved, they tended towards a sub-Woody Allen fixation with self analysis which usually, due to the lack (almost total in some cases) of budget, simply meant people sitting in rooms talking about themselves constantly. Cinematic they certainly weren’t.
The Duplass Brothers however, often tagged as a couple of mumblekids themselves, at least opened up their stories, the award-winning The Puffy Chair (2005) is ostensibly a road movie and maybe my favourite of this ilk. Their follow up feature, Baghead (2008) could even be loosely described as a horror movie of sorts, proving that (within their budgetary limits) they’re not afraid to play with and deconstruct genre.
But it seems the mumblers are growing up. A few months ago saw the release of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, and although Baumbach hit the mainstream some years ago now with The Squid and The Whale, his origins are certainly similar (Kicking and Screaming being his debut) and he’s often considered a kind of mentor to the likes of Swanberg.
Like Greenberg and Lynn Shelton’s earlier Humpday, the Duplass’ new picture, Cyrus, goes a long way to show that the mumblecore movement was less a manifesto of artistic belief (in the sense of Von Trier’s Dogme 95) and more a case of necessity – they weren’t going to let a lack of experience or cash stop them from making movies. Given a decent budget, cinematographer and cast allows them to concentrate on their strengths as filmmakers, most notably their skills as writers and directors.
John C. Reilly plays John, a depressed divorcee still in love with his ex-wife (Catharine Keener) seven years after they’ve split. At the start, she walks in on him masturbating to tell him that she’s re-marrying, and that he should come to a party with her and her soon-to-be husband rather than stewing in his own gloomy (metaphorical!) juices. He reluctantly agrees and proceeds to get hideously drunk, but also somehow manages to catch the attention of hot single mom Marisa Tomei, who sees something in John’s vulnerability and drunken honesty.
Having spent a couple of nights with Tomei, John soon meets her son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), an enormous 22 year old with severe emotional development issues and a strong whiff of Oedipal neediness. He and his mom are ‘best friends’ and it soon becomes clear that from his standpoint, his mom’s love can’t possibly accommodate the both of them, so he sets out to sabotage the relationship. Oedipus Wrecks indeed.
Hill’s performance as Cyrus is quite simply revelatory. His understated creepiness is a far cry from the brash characters he’s played in the likes of Superbad (2007) and Knocked Up (2007), but as much credit needs to be given to the Duplass’ for writing such a simultaneously repellent yet sympathetic character. The same goes for Reilly and Tomei, both excellent, and it’s a mark of the talent of the directors that a plot which could quickly descend into farce is handled with real honesty and restraint.
Cyrus is both laugh-out-loud funny and quietly touching. It plays with our preconceptions of family and ‘correct’ relationships, but is as much about the ability to grow-up and let go of the comfortable and the familiar, a notion as applicable to John’s relationship with his ex-wife as that of Cyrus with his mother. It’s a beautifully observed piece, featuring a great soundtrack and stellar performances from it’s cast, and I for one can’t wait to see where the Duplass Brothers go from here.