Cyrus Review

(2.5 STARS)

Few films received as much positive buzz out of Sundance as “Cyrus,” the latest from the Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark. Many hailed it as a film of rare emotional honesty. Festival-goers in Austin for South by Southwest responded in kind, but I couldn’t help but think the film didn’t live up to the buzz. Sure it was emotionally honest, and parts were really funny, but technically, the production was seriously lacking, and I couldn’t help but feel the film suffered an identity problem.

John (John C. Reilly) is a lonely man who is still coping with the aftereffects of his divorce from Jamie (Catherine Keener) seven years ago. He relies on her for friendship and advice, but she’s about to be remarried to Tim (Matt Walsh), who doesn’t care much for John and his relationship to Jamie. They take John to a party in the hopes of hooking him up with a smart, pretty girl. There, he (very drunkenly) meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), who finds John’s openness endearing. The two actually make quite a couple, but Molly’s mysterious habit of leaving in the middle of the night worries John. So one night, he follows her home, expecting the worst (that she has a husband waiting for her).

Instead, John meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s seemingly genial son. At first, the two are considerate, albeit awkward toward one another (Cyrus warns John not to sleep with his mother, but John confirms to him that their relationship has already become intimate – talk about too much information). But when John’s shoes go missing, he suspects Cyrus. Slowly but surely, John peels back the increasingly disturbing layers of Cyrus to discover a kind of evil individual who will stop at nothing to make sure John doesn’t end up with his mother.

This part of the story felt familiar (although I’m not sure the romantic foil has ever been as creepy as Cyrus). Still, I will commend the Duplass Brothers for their story’s honesty. The film doesn’t pull any punches. It doesn’t hide from the more uncomfortable emotions and situations – in fact, it relishes them. Some of the film’s best and funniest moments come as a result of a sincere admission from one of the main characters.

However, the films comedy and emotional frankness are accompanied by some of the worst cinematic technique I’ve seen in a while. The Duplass Brothers opt for using an annoying, distracting, and downright sloppy way of telling this story. The camerawork is poor. Many scenes are filmed as if it was a home video with noticeably amateur movements. Another frequent technique is the use of narration over a scene in which what the narrators are saying matches what the characters would be saying if the directors just let them speak. OK, that may have been a confusing explanation (I’ve been trying to find a good way to explain that to people for a while), but it underscores the reason why I didn’t like it. It just didn’t make sense. Why not just film a normal conversation instead of messing slightly with the timing and adding in the narration?

The acting in the film varies from good to very good, but I don’t think any of the performances will be remembered come Oscar time next year. The best of the bunch is Marisa Tomei, whose Molly is sweet, endearing, and quite vulnerable. She’s truly torn between the man she likes and her son, and she has a really hard time recognizing her son’s troubles.

John C. Reilly was a great choice for John. The role reminded me a lot of Reilly’s character in Magnolia. He’s lonely, honest, kind of pathetic, but incredibly sympathetic. Here, Reilly handles both the comedy and the drama quite deftly. My only problem with the performance, which was another problem I had with the film as a whole, is that the line between drama and comedy is at times very blurred. Reilly plays some very serious moments for laughs. Other times, he tries to tone it down for a moment of sincerity but ends up generating laughter.

The other major player is Jonah Hill. This is a pretty big departure for the actor best known for his appearances in Judd Apatow films. Cyrus seems pretty one-note for most of the film, but a scene near the end with John salvages the character and the performance. Hill handles that scene quite well. The rest of the film isn’t terrible, but isn’t great either. Cyrus is an asshole, and that’s how Hill plays it. The vulnerability isn’t even remotely hinted at until the aforementioned scene with John.

I’m really unsure what will happen with “Cyrus” when it gets released. People who have seen it loved it. But the average audience, I think, will really be turned off by it. But who knows. It’s definitely an intriguing film, which I’m all about, but I have to say I was pretty disappointed. I thought the Duplass Brothers could have done better. I wish they had done better because parts of the film are really special. But on the whole, the negatives outweigh the positives, which gives “Cyrus” the distinction of being the first real disappointment of 2010.

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