Film movements, like Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95, reach critical mass when the aesthetics transcend conventions and document their own reality, one that audiences can embrace. Mumblecore, the low-fi craze that’s dominated Sundance, SXSW and other U.S. indie film festivals for the last few years with its casual, hip (some might read “lazy”) camera techniques and sometimes barely audible improvised dialogue, scaled the heights and threatened to crack mainstream respectability this spring when Ben Stiller and writer-director Noah Baumbach adopted the approach for Greenberg and ended up with one of Stiller’s most nuanced performances to date.
The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, filmmakers at the forefront of the movement thanks to films like The Puffy Chair and Baghead, seemingly sensed the rising tide and have made a play for a longer ride to recognition with Cyrus, which stars the summer’s most unlikely hero, Jonah Hill, already coasting on the comedic wave of Get Him to the Greek, as the titular 22-year-old caught in one of the screen’s most unhealthy mother-son relationships ever — although who could argue with a mother like Marisa Tomei.
Cyrus the movie is, at least initially, not the character’s story but that of John (John C. Reilly), a lonely film editor divorced from his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) for more than seven years, who just can’t seem to get on with the rest of his life. Jamie and her increasingly less patient fiance Tim (Matt Walsh) drag John to a party where, on the cusp of falling flat on his face during a series of exchanges with eligible women, he meets Molly (Tomei), the one woman who finds his raw and awkward emotional honesty engaging. Although we, and John, quickly learn that she has one hell of an issue in the guise of her aforementioned awkward relationship with her man-child Cyrus.
In Hill and Reilly, the Duplass brothers have two performers easily able to steer this vehicle down the broad commercial box-office highway, but each of them proves to understand that Cyrus has the potential to be much more than either a box-office hit with endless spin-offs or a simple indie treat capable of coasting far below the radar. In their hands, Cyrus blossoms into a gem that captures the desperation of two men imprisoned in their own unique states of arrested development and the women who love them perhaps a bit too dearly.
Yet for as much as this film succeeds thanks to the charmed and fully realized work of Hill and Reilly, it owes huge debts to Tomei and Keener, who provide the anchors these two guys need.
The most significant downside to Cyrus is embodied in the Duplass Brothers’ strict adherence to shooting the movie as if the frame was a moving target or a snippet of conversation they weren’t quite able to hear. Amateurish camera work, of course, is one of the hallmarks of the movement, but film is first and foremost a craft. And with such lovingly detailed efforts from the performers in front of the camera, it sure would be nice if the brothers would follow the example of their characters and take the lead in ushering the movement into a more mature phase. Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)