Monday, December 20, 2010

A CARTON OF EGGSHELLS: a review of "Cyrus"

Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

What a strange, sad little movie this is.

Maybe “strange” and “sad” are not quite the right adjectives to utilize for a film that approximates aspects of our ever shifting and fragile human nature so precisely and effectively. Yet, once the final credits began to roll, those were the very first words to enter my mind. As I ruminate and write this latest review for you, dear readers, I will be happy to leave myself open for any potential emerging impressions as it is a film simple in nature yet deeply complex internally. “Cyrus,” written and directed by The Duplass Brothers, possesses exactly the sort of ever shifting and fragile nature that seems as if the film will fly off the rails at any moment, yet it somehow keeps its footing firmly in place. The film keeps you off guard and anxious just enough to keep the somewhat predictable storyline of “Cyrus” consistently unpredictable and always emotionally honest.

While I do not ever want to claim sides in the cinematic war between mainstream Hollywood features and independent films, as both arenas have their respective peaks and valleys, I would have to say that for 2010, some key independent releases have shown more successful and artistically greater representations of modern life in the 21st century, especially in regards to families and interpersonal relationships. Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” has repeatedly received high praise from me and recently, I also gave high marks to Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give.” “Cyrus” is yet another smaller film of high quality that did not receive the highest audience during its theatrical run. Now that it is available on DVD, I am so happy to point you in its direction and I sincerely hope that you will take me up on the recommendation.

John C. Reilly stars as John, a depressed and lonely film editor, stuck in an emotional rut seven years after his divorce from Jamie (the great Catherine Keener), with whom he has remained close friends. At the film’s opening, John has painfully learned that Jamie is planning to remarry, yet Jamie is unwilling to leave him in such an emotionally dilapidated state. She coerces him to attend a party where many available women will attend. John reluctantly agrees and immediately begins to regret his decision due to his social awkwardness and blunt honesty about himself, his life and his needs. After drinking copious amounts of alcohol and striking out again and again in one conversation after another, he is surprised by the arrival of Molly (Marisa Tomei), just as he is urinating into a bush. During these initial moments, Molly is revealed to be quite possibly the woman John has been searching for due to their instant chemistry. And surprisingly, during John’s excited and drunken dance to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” his romantic suspicions are confirmed when she happily joins him and subsequently returns to his home and makes love with him.

After a successful second date with Molly where John’s feelings are tenderly and graciously reciprocated, he is understandably unnerved to find Molly slipping out of his apartment in the middle of the night once again. Upon discovering her home, John soon meets the other man in Molly’s life--Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a polite and inviting 21-year-old New Age musician who also happens to be Molly’s son. Cyrus and Molly are best friends and share an openly unconventional parent/child relationship (Cyrus rarely addresses Molly as “Mom,” she continues to soothe him at night during anxiety attacks, they playfully wrestle as if he is still a young child, he has open knowledge of her sexual nature, etc), which does indeed perplex John, but not so much where he would depart the first relationship in many years that potentially could be life changing. Unfortunately and despite his inviting demeanor, Cyrus is not at all ready to share Molly with anyone, a desire that threatens to dismantle the budding romance for good.

While “Cyrus” does work extremely well as a darkly comic, 21st century “Oedipus,” it never descends into an experience of uncomfortable creepiness, vile absurdity or even the pathetically lazy style of a “Meet The Parents” farce. Yet, the film does precariously straddle all of those aforementioned elements, an aspect that does give the film its undeniable edge. But what Jay and Mark Duplass have ultimately created so wonderfully is a film about the collective arrested development of a series of characters as they tentatively navigate through their lives. Like “The Kids Are All Right,” “Please Give,” Director Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low" and Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” “Cyrus” is a minutely and meticulously observed character study.

And also like those aforementioned films, it is also a movie without villains. While some characters do questionable things here and there, all of the characters are trying to face their choices and consequences as honestly and as gently as they are able. The emotional eggshells they tread throughout the film in regards to each other are instantly and undeniably palpable, thus giving “Cyrus” a communal, empathetic spirit that I think audiences would easily recognize within their own interpersonal relationships. There is not one mean bone in its body.

Speaking of eggshells, the film’s characters are ones that I would like to think of as people engaged in various states of emergence, as if they were all newborn chicks forcing themselves from eggs. John, Molly, Jaime and especially Cyrus are all on the cusp of profound transformations into newer and improved selves and their struggle against that inevitable transformation lies at the heart of the story. They are all uncomfortably tethered to their long established roles while attempting to break free of them.

In fact, Cyrus himself, with his closely cropped hairstyle, which accentuates his oval shaped head, actually suggests an actual living, breathing egg, is painfully confronted with the act of becoming. This quality gives a character, which could have only existed as a freakish antagonist, a deeply human soul. Cyrus’ power is unquestionable as his arrested development hinders the necessary growth of all around him, from the budding relationship between John and his mother, Molly, but also Molly’s inner growth as an adult sexual being and even Jaime’s ability to move onwards with her life and new marriage as she constantly serves as a source of consolation to John. Even further, John and Cyrus are essentially mirror versions of each other as they fall into a desperate and unhealthy attachments to the literal and figurative Mother figures in both of their lives. All of these details are sharply, humorously and gracefully observed and presented in the Duplass Brothers’ excellent screenplay.

Visually, the Duplass Brothers utilize that slightly overactive cinematography (yes, the dreaded shaky-cam) that suggests a docudrama, and which I generally abhor. However, it somehow works to the film’s advantage, as it seems to emphasize the emotional shakiness and instability experienced by all of the film’s primary characters. It is a directorial choice that could have been an irritant but thankfully, worked in support of the material. I must also give credit to musician Michael Andrews, who once composed and performed the beautiful score for Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks” television series, as he again contributes a mostly acoustic guitar driven score that signifies nothing less than bittersweetness.

Aside from the layers inherent within their story, the Duplass Brothers must be given tremendous credit for their excellent casting as not one member is out of place in any discernible way. John C. Reilly, after a spell of working within the Judd Apatow repertoire, returns to the type of indie film role he would have performed in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. While the character of John is a sad sack, Reilly always lines the hurt, despair and confusion with dignity. His chemistry with the always luminous Marisa Tomei is a wonder as their love story is one of the most realistic and thoughtfully romantic pairings I have seen this year. John and Molly were truly a cinematic couple I rooted for and only wanted to witness their happiness.

Catherine Keener again delivers the emotional honestly that is her trademark in her crucial supporting role. But, Jonah Hill was the real surprise for me. While I have enjoyed him immensely as a member of Apatow’s band of merry men, whose skill with broad comedy and improvisation has contributed heavily to the success of films like “Superbad” (2007), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008) and this year’s ”Get Him To The Greek,” “Cyrus” gives Hill the opportunity to take on, what just may be, his first dramatic role. Not don’t get me wrong, this role does not require the “heaviest’ of lifting but what the role does require is the ability to be that provocative catalyst for all of the other actors/characters. Jonah Hill meets those requirements with seemingly effortless ease, while ensuring that he never falls into caricature. You are always unsure of where he stands from moment to moment yet you completely understand not only his motives but the aching needs for his duplicity.

As with several other strong features released this year, “Cyrus” is not the sort of film to set the world of cinema on fire. It is not designed to make $200 million at the box office and receive endless Academy awards and that is just fine as it does not need to be that type of movie. If anything, its success shows just how difficult it is to pull off a film this unassuming while being this emotionally complicated and decidedly adult.

At the start of this review, I originally used the words “strange” and “sad” to describe it. But, now at the close, I have arrived at better descriptive words for “Cyrus.”

What a wry, odd, wistful and poignant little movie this is.

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