Sonny dearest

Pub date June 22, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM It’s tempting to label Mark and Jay Duplass’ Cyrus as “mumblecore goes mainstream.” Yes, the mumblecore elements are all there: plentiful moments of awkward humiliation, characters fumbling verbally and sometimes physically in desperate attempts to establish emotional connections, and a meandering, character-driven plot, in the sense that the characters themselves possess precious little drive.

The addition of bona fide indie movie stars John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener, and Marisa Tomei — not to mention Hollywood’s chubby-funny guy du jour, Jonah Hill — could lead some to believe that the DIY-loving Duplass brothers (2005’s The Puffy Chair, 2008’s Baghead) have gone from slacker disciples of John Cassavetes (informally known as “Slackavetes”) to worshippers at the slickly profane (with a heart) altar of Judd Apatow.

But despite the presence of Apatow protégé Hill (2007’s Superbad) in the title role, Cyrus steers clear of crowd-pleasing bombast, instead favoring small, relatively naturalistic moments. That is to say, not much actually happens. Mumblecore? More or less. Mainstream? Not exactly.

On the surface, Hill’s character in particular has the ring of an outrageous Hollywood comedic foil, the kind of outsized and broadly drawn (in every sense) clown who ratchets up the action by assaulting the movie’s loser hero, John (Reilly, in lost puppy dog mode) with endless, over-the-top Machiavellian schemes.

Cyrus — a disingenuous 21-year-old schlub who still lives with his mother (Tomei) and engages in creepy, inappropriate activities with her, like wrestling in the park — is actually more sad mouse than psychotic lion. The most heinous crime he ever perpetrates on fellow schlub John — this one painfully sincere, competing for his mother’s affections — is stealing his shoes.

“Molly and I are really best friends,” he tells John, before giving him a steely-eyed stare-down while serenading him on the synthesizer, in one the few moments between Cyrus and John that’s both funny and tension-filled.

Despite playing a character with some serious psychological issues, Hill comes off as likeable. Unfortunately the movie is neither as broadly comic nor as emotionally poignant as it needs to be — the two opposing forces seem to cancel each other out like acids and bases.

Strongly evocative of 1970s new American filmmaking, Cyrus‘ naturalism mixed with absurdity brings to mind great ’70s auteurs like Hal Ashby or even Robert Altman. Even the set and wardrobe (particularly the winsome Tomei’s poodle curls, heavy mascara, and hippie caftans) nostalgically evoke the era. But the Duplass brothers have neither the chops nor the strong point of view of world-class filmmakers. Those great earlier films were shambling and disjointed, yes, but they did ultimately have a destination. Cyrus is content to just spend the day in the park, engaging in some Oedipal wrestling.

CYRUS opens Fri/25 in San Francisco theaters.