SXSW Review: ‘Cyrus’

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Cyrus
Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

The Austin based Duplass brothers made a name for themselves as vanguards of the mumblecore movement–a movement in film which emphasized uber-tiny budgets and naturalistic acting.  Their first two features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, drew immense, if hesitant, praise from festivals like SXSW, and skyrocketed them to the top of my list of directors to give actual budgets to.  Well, somebody has gone and done that, resulting in Cyrus, Mark and Jay Duplass’ first studio film and first chance to completely piss off their established fanbase.  Thankfully, the brothers have created another singularly Duplass production but this time they brought in a few ringers.

John (John C. Reilly) is a schlubby, down on his luck, copy-editor still struggling with his long-passed divorce from old flame and continued confidant Jamie (Catherine Keener).  On Jamie’s urging, he puts on some pants and comes out to a party celebrating her engagement with fiance Tim (Matt Walsh), where he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) and the audience experiences a supremely uncomfortable and hilarious film opening.  Molly is shockingly endeared by his drunken antics, the two go home together, and John becomes enamored.  Complications arise when the key to Molly’s mysterious early morning departures becomes clear–her 21 year old son and best friend, Cyrus (Jonah Hill).  Cue a complex romantic-comedy about three people in desperate need of love, none of whom are very capable of achieving it.

The story does get a little thin and easy by the close, and John’s relationship with Jamie, while always good for comic relief, never feels completely fleshed out.  But Cyrus is largely as naturalistic as Duplass fans would hope and John and Molly’s tale never feels contrived.  Reilly is his usual awesome self, not doing much to break his goofball mold besides adding depth and pathos to it. He has some great chemistry with the charming and apparently never-aging Marisa Tomei, who in turn totally sells her pseudo-maternal relationship with Hill.  Hill is the biggest relief here, as none of his previous work hinted at the dramatic talent within.  He works outsides of his comfort zone, crafting a character that is (while still Jonah Hill) unsettling and moving in a way he hasn’t before shown.

Even outside the use of two Apatow mainstays, Cyrus is reminiscent of Judd Apatow’s directorial work, if not in style than in circumstance.  Like the Knocked Up director, The Duplass brothers work subversively within some conventional plotting to craft an off-kilter, heartfelt romantic comedy that could play well in the multiplex.  You know how the story goes–boy meets girl, misunderstandings occur, resolution!–but you never get to see characters like John, Molly, and Cyrus in these films, much less the uncomfortable love triangle between the three.  Because of the presence of Reilly and Hill, there are also bursts of Apatowesque comedy, but they never override the specific Duplass humor and aesthetic.

In an after screening Q & A, Jonah Hill explained that it was satisfying to work within his role and allow the humor to flow through circumstance and character, as opposed to firing off as many jokes as quickly as possible.  This philosophy is clear throughout Cyrus, and, while it is a very funny film, the comedy rarely feels shoehorned in or at a disservice to the heart of the film.

That refreshing new voice in underground cinema everyone was talking about a few years ago?  Not going anywhere.

-Emmet Duff

Visit http://sxsw.com/film for more info on the film festival.

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