Freud would have had a ball with Molly (Marisa Tomei) and Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Molly is what the Viennese Sexologist would have called an engulfing mother, a single mom with an extra strong connection to her son. Cyrus is, well, he’s Cyrus—an overweight twenty-one-year-old with an Oedipus complex and an attitude. Enter John, played by John C. Reilly, a single sad sack who falls for Molly and feels the wrath of Cyrus. As Freud said, “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.”
When we first meet John he’s been single for seven years and still pines for his ex wife (Catherine Keener) even though she is about to be remarried. At her insistence he goes to a party and following some of the most awkward attempts at picking up women ever put on screen he meets Molly, a pretty partygoer who is attracted to his awkwardness and honesty she begins a relationship with him. After a one night stand and the words nobody wants to hear—“My life is really complicated right now”—John follows her home and meets Cyrus, her man-child son. Cyrus pretends to be happy that John is around. “You deserve someone to love you in the way that I can’t love you,” he tells his mother, but secretly he is plotting to drive a wedge between the two.
“Cyrus” is a dark character study disguised as a comedy. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, a Coen-lite brother team best known for making no budget indies like “The Puffy Chair” that make the Dogme 95 films look like slick Michael Bay movies, it has a few chuckles sprinkled throughout, but don’t expect a John C. Reilly laughfest like “Stepbrothers.” “Cyrus” is about broken people, unhealthy relationships and how people act when they feel threatened. Like real life sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, other times it’s awkward, but the brothers and actors ensure that whatever the tone of any given scene, and no matter how outrageous the situation, that it rings true.
Tomei is the glue that holds the film together. As Molly, mother of Cyrus, girlfriend to John, she’s caught between two men she loves and must provide balance as their emotional war escalates. She’s warm and believable, but also vulnerable and unpredictable. It’s another great performance from an actor who should be a bigger star than she is.
Reilly finds a balance between the character work he does for Paul Thomas Anderson in movies like “Magnolia” and the slapstick he’s been doing lately with Will Ferrell in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” It’s his most layered performance in some time and it is refreshing to see an average-guy leading man on the big screen.
Like Reilly, Jonah Hill adds dimension to Cyrus, taking a character who could have been played for laughs and adding some intensity and depth. Freud might have been speaking about him when he said, “One is very crazy when in love.”
“Cyrus” is an odd film. Not quite a comedy, not quite a drama it falls somewhere in between. Just like real life.
People’s initial feelings for the film Cyrus, opening June 25th from Fox Searchlight, will likely be mixed, feeling that the film walks a fine line between funny and creepy. And that is true. These are the feelings I had throughout the first part of the film. But there is a certain sweetness to its strangeness that makes it always interesting, and never obnoxious or cloying. And once we find out more about the characters, it’s not creepy either. As it reached it’s conclusion, I found myself moved by these characters’ journey, in a way that I could have only hoped to be.
Cyrus is the latest film from sibling-directors Jay and Mark Duplass. Their first feature was a quirky road-trip movie, The Puffy Chair (2006), that looked at romantic relationships. Their second feature, Baghead (2008), was an alt-horror film. Their latest, Cyrus, is a love triangle with a twist. The Duplass brothers, (33-year old Mark and 37-year old Jay), were in Toronto last Tuesday for a screening of Cyrus at the Varsity. It was directly followed by a Q&A, hosted by Canada AM’s Richard Crouse.
John (John C. Reily) has been divorced for 7 years, has never found a new partner, and still keeps in touch with his ex-wife. When he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party, what starts as a one-night-stand, develops into a complicated love triangle of sorts between John, Molly and Molly’s young adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Cyrus, though intellectually mature, is emotionally immature, and shares a rather juvenile relationship with his mom.
Although the characters aren’t always likable, and their personalities are sometimes confusing, it takes an indirect route in introducing a universal theme. It’s completely natural and believable, and though there are stretches that would feel mundane in the wrong hands, the Duplass brothers’ handle these scenes with an expert skill that makes every moment interesting.
The film was scripted, but improvisation from the very talented cast was encouraged, and Jay was on hand to capture every moment. Using handheld digital cameras, he likened the filming style to that of a documentary. As limited sets and actors were used, Cyrus was also filmed in sequential order, allowing for further improvisation and natural progression of the characters.
During the Q&A, one audience member asked, after stating that he understood it perfectly, “what was the symbolism of the shoes?” He was referring to the fact that John’s white Adidas play a role in the script. Mark replied, ever graciously, “there was symbolism? I’d love to hear your take on that. They’re just shoes. It was actually just something small, epically small, introduced later on in the script, that we thought just tied in nicely to the story.”
After speaking with the Duplass brothers directly following the presentation, I’ve been thinking a lot about how their work would compare to Noah Baumbach’s recent film Greenberg. When I asked them, Mark, who had a brief part in Greenberg, replied jokingly, “well, obviously our film is better, but no, Greenberg was more misanthropic than our movie and a little more serious.”
I can think of many arguments for both, but the only comparison I can think of between their most recent work – Baumbach’s Greenberg, and the Duplass’ Cyrus – is that both movies, in tone and style, capture their characters perfectly. Greenberg is more misanthropic, offering a bleaker view of the people it portrays. The character and movie of Greenberg was a little more sure of itself, yet at the same time unsure. Each line of scripted dialogue, was put forth with the same intelligent thought that Greenberg had before he would speak. And like it’s central character, it was a little depressed, and not entirely likable.
The tone of Cyrus, like the characters, is more casual and laid back. It captures perfectly the tone of these very ordinary people, who are all involved in a relationship that is a little unsettling, but rarely hard to watch. The way they speak is nothing extraordinary, but the topics they discuss are in central focus of moving a very interesting character study forward.
The advice the Duplass brothers’ would give to aspiring filmmakers is “to keep making movies.” As Mark said, “even if you have to make 20 shorts before you make a good one.” To which Jay added, “Now with digital cameras, film making has gotten really affordable. One of our first short films was made for only 3 dollars.” He was referring to their first collaborative effort, This is John, a short that played at Sundance in 2003.
Money was another problem that the brothers faced on Cyrus, and not in the way you might think. Their first feature, The Puffy Chair, was made for 15,000 dollars, graciously donated by their parents. On Cyrus, working with a studio budget, they had to strictly follow union rules, which meant that at times there were upwards of 70 people on their small sets. Certainly not something they were used to when filming their smaller “mumblecore” films.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t keep the style of their other films. One complaint from a nauseated audience member was that the shaky camera work was the only thing wrong with an otherwise good movie. The way the camera is constantly zooming in and out could be seen as a distraction. But as Jay explained, because the actors are given so much improvisational room, they use handhelds, so that as the actors move around at their own pace, they can follow them and use the zoom to try to quickly capture a particular emotion that an actor is portraying in the moment.
Obviously there was a different enthusiasm in the air, seeing the film with the crew in attendance, but the audience reactions seemed to be mostly positive. Hopefully people will give Cyrus a chance when it opens in select theatres in Toronto on 25th of June. I think the key to enjoying it is to go in with a clean-slate, and just accept the paths these characters take. And perhaps come prepared if shaky-cam usually gets to you.