Monday, July 12, 2010


For months after I saw The Puffy Chair at the 2005 South by Southwest film festival, I waited for it to open in New Jersey so I could tell my TimeOFF readers about it. It wasn’t the best movie I’d seen that year, but it was one of the most likeable. A low-key but laugh-out-loud story about a relationship-testing road trip, The Puffy Chair is just the kind of warmhearted, humanistic comedy a lot of the people I know would like to see more of.

But it never had a theatrical run, and Baghead, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass’ second feature, never got to Jersey (both films are now available on Netflix). That makes Cyrus is the first Duplass brothers movie to play at a theater near you, so I’m sorry to say it’s not their best work. Still, it’s a lot better than most of what makes it into the multiplex.

Jonah Hill is Cyrus, a terrifyingly passive-aggressive man-sized boy with an Oedipus complex Freud would have loved to sink his teeth into. Not that it’s hard to understand his fixation, seeing as how his mom, Molly (Marisa Tomei in earth mother mode), is as warm and nurturing as she is juicily sexy. The two seem very happy in their too-tight little family circle until John (John C. Reilly) falls for Molly and bumbles in. Then the fight is on, as Cyrus and John wage a clandestine war for the affections of the blithely clueless Molly.

For better and worse, the Duplass brothers carried techniques they developed for their indie films into their first studio-funded feature. One of the better things is the improvisation they’ve always required of their actors. A lot of directors use improv these days, and not always well. Movies like Grown Ups, in which big stars riff away, cracking themselves and each other up, can easily become shapeless, self-indulgent messes. But the Duplass brothers use improv thoughtfully, letting their actors make the dialogue their own and find new humor or truth in their scenes while making sure they stay grounded in their characters’ personalities and relationships. That helps give their movies the lived-in, true-to-life texture that is their best trait. As Reilly put it, at a Q&A after the South by Southwest screening, the improvisation the Duplasses encourage is always “going after an emotional truth.”

But it’s too bad the brothers hung onto their penchant for zooming in on people for no good reason, which whips up a sense of urgency often at odds with the tone of a scene. They also rely too much on laying down dialogue over jump cuts of people silently interacting, a technique that draws attention to itself, making you momentarily aware that you’re watching a movie. Which would be just fine, of course, if that feeling enhanced the experience in some way, but it seems out of place in a movie so bent on creating a feeling of everyday reality, especially since it’s often used in scenes that are trying to establish a sense of intimacy.

Other directors might have played Cyrus as social satire – Molly is, after all, the ultimate helicopter mom – but the Duplass brothers want us to laugh with, not at, their characters. That puts a heavy onus on the actors to make us connect to the people they play, since Cyrus is downright monstrous, John is another of those sloppy, self-pitying man-children that are all over the movies these days, and Molly is so underdeveloped it’s hard to know what makes her tick. Fortunately, the cast – which includes the always wonderful Catherine Keener as John’s patient ex-wife – is up to the challenge. Hill is particularly impressive as a kind of human Chuckie doll, the round-eyed innocent act he plays straight in more conventional comedies taking on a whole new meaning as Cyrus uses it as a cover for his ruthless plotting.

The Duplass brothers are at their best when they’re finding the humor in everyday situations and relationships, so you feel them straining a bit to domesticate the sick scenario at the heart of this movie. But if you like quirky comedies, Cyrus is well worth seeing.

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