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Jonah Hill, left, Marisa Tomei & John C. Reilly in CYRUS (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Written & Directed by Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Produced by
Michael Costigan
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 92 min. Rated R
John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener & Matt Walsh 

Cyrus would sound a lot like another tired buddy-war movie in the Todd Phillips and Adam McKay comedy express lane if it hadn’t been directed by the suddenly ubiquitous indie duo Mark and Jay Duplass. Everybody’s favorite unruly huckster, John C. Reilly, and the equally silly Jonah Hill star in opposing roles as flawed but still loveable men vying for the attention of the same woman (Marisa Tomei). In the last year, the brothers have directed, produced, and/or starred in at least nine independents, at least four (this one included) appearing at Sundance this past January. Their work as writer-directors is sort of a category unto itself, a (slightly) more polished version of mumblecore designed for that wider audience that never quite got past the inside joke of the last five or so years of ultra-lo-pro narrative features, but one that easily responds to more familiar dramatic scenarios and genre conventions.

The Duplasses haven’t abandoned their earlier back-to-the-roots ethic. Their focus remains on what makes movies “movies,” rather than on what makes movies “cool” or “fun to watch.” Cyrus might seem a lot like Hollywood on paper, but a few points set it clearly apart. For one, it’s shot using a hand-held video camera, an active zoom lens, and all-natural lighting. Also, a large amount of the dialogue is improvised. I’m being reductive here, but the focus of this comedy is also, without a doubt, on what makes movies “indie.”

The novelty of seeing such major stars through this cooler medium (in the Marshall McLuhan sense, mind you) lasts about as long as the opening segment of an episode of The Office before the first commercial break. Within minutes, the shaky camera and invisible production design is forgotten and the plot takes over completely. Unfortunately, slow to come are any sufficient character details about Molly (Tomei) and her 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Hill), whose weird relationship stands in the way of what could be a very healthy one between her and a new suitor, John (Reilly).

The improvisation, likewise, is at equal moments clunky and jarringly tender, but both qualities are more like distractions until we can figure out what’s really going on between these people. This is not Cassavetes. In Molly’s moments alone—of which she has several—she offers a completely blank face, giving nothing to the bewildered audience. Even during Molly and Cyrus’s private conversations, we’re never quite allowed to know why Molly and Cyrus are such an awkward family. Perhaps the improv is the culprit. It’s as if neither the directors nor the actors know these characters well enough.

During the private conversations between Cyrus and John, things get cooking, though. This is where Hollywood kicks in and the buddy war begins. Reilly and Hill pick up the cues with ease and taunt each other gleefully. It’s fun, but familiar. The result is also one of exclusion. Molly is extraneous once the boys begin these rites of territoriality. They’re not battling for her, as in so many of these films. They’re instead battling against each other. In the end, none of these old-hat conventions are in the least bit deconstructed, and not much in terms of technique is very new. Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly are funny dudes, and may be talented improvisational actors, but I’d rather take the outtakes from the dinner table scene in Talladega Nights any day. Michael Lee
June 18, 2010



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