I might not be so inclined to denigrate the Duplass duo had I not attended a Q&A with John C. Reilly after the screening, the permeating undercurrent of which was that the two directors are full of shit. In describing their approach, Reilly euphemistically emphasized their preference for first-take performances and improvised dialogue. Something rang a bell.
Lynn Shelton, director of the stillborn Sundance darling “Humpday,” which just so happens to star Mark Duplass in its leading role, detailed using the same methods on her film: naturalism, with a hands-off approach to direction. Sure, it makes for an easy, artsy-fartsy sound byte, but it’s lazy filmmaking, and comes across pretentious. “Cyrus,” like “Humpday,” suffers for this lack of a pronounced, unified vision, and the camerawork, which is rife with hasty snap-zooms and cut together with questionable motive, feels artificial and distracting.
It’s a flagrant rejection of the Hollywood norms, which I can appreciate at its base level, but only on the condition that it provokes a better film. The promise of “Cyrus’s” premise is squandered on the Duplasses’ nonchalant mentality that no choices are preferable to bad ones. It’s almost as if, by passing directing duty off to happenstance, the duo want to render themselves immune to criticism—But the choice to make no choices is a choice too. A bad one.
I don’t mean to harp on why the Duplass brothers annoy me as directors. Maybe that “Cyrus” survives at all, despite the illusion that it was made practically by accident, is a testament to their talent as writers. It’s a simple premise; Reilly plays a man “in a downward spiral,” who meets Molly, a woman beyond out of his league. The only peculiarity is the uncomfortably close relationship she has with her grown, stay-at-home son, Cyrus.
Initially, Marisa Tomei feels out of place as Molly, but I guess when you’re casting the woman that comes between two men as ugly as John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, you almost need a knockout as ballast. She colors the role, bringing dimension to a part that could otherwise have been swept aside and forgotten. Hill is also great, and more reserved than some may expect, in the title role, which calls for a loathsome, conniving manipulator. His rivalry with Reilly’s neurotic and sympathetic loser makes for a few really terrific scenes—And a couple that are probably too broad.
The tonal inconsistency of “Cyrus” is one of the reasons it ends up feeling not entirely satisfying. There aren't quite enough jokes to call it a comedy, and too few serious moments to call it a drama. Additionally, the decision to hire high profile actors, and the inclusion of some borderline “Step Brothers”-esque gags, appear to court a mainstream crowd that will likely be intermittently bored. Conversely, as a snooty art house film, it doesn’t dig deep enough, or get weird enough between Cyrus and Molly to really push any thematic boundaries.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I think that all falls squarely on the heads of the Duplass brothers, whose half-baked style and cloudy focus sabotage any chance for “Cyrus” to be a standout film. Their directorial absence and aggressive unconventionality detract from what could have been memorable as a more straightforward film.
Nevertheless, I’d still recommend “Cyrus” based on the strengths of its performances, but the mumblecore movement, as spearheaded by the Duplass brothers, underscores a lot of my least favorite qualities in filmmaking. Next time, guys, you may not have John C. Reilly to save your ass.