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Is mumblecore dead? Jay and Mark Duplass, who helped pioneer the irritating genre characterized by low action and extensive navel-gazing, have certainly taken a step away from its conventions in Cyrus, a love-triangle comedy in which two of the parties are mother and son. Yes, it’s a sitcom-meets-porn setup. Yet the Duplass brothers, who also wrote the script, hold back just when you expect things to go over the top.
This restraint may leave you disappointed at first, but it’s ultimately satisfying—and it makes you consider whether, just maybe, you spend too much time in front of screens big and small. It’s difficult to critique the film fully without giving too much away, but it involves John (John C. Reilly), a sad-sack divorcé whom we meet in his dingy apartment as his ex, Jamie (Catherine Keener), catches him tending to his “jock itch.” She’s there to tell him that she’s getting remarried. And though she’s been dating the man for years, John is taken aback. “It still stings,” he says. “It’s still a surprise.”
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So what better post-bombshell plan than to drag John to a party? Naturally, he has a lousy time, alternately keeping to himself, getting loaded, treating strangers as therapists, and trying to ignore Jamie’s condescending fiancé. (“There are a lot of pretty girls here, John!”) Then he goes outside to pee in the bushes and—expediently—meets a dream: Molly (Marisa Tomei), who overheard his poor-me monologues and finds him “raw and honest.” John is thrilled but soon suspicious. “I’m, like, Shrek,” he says, “What are you doing in the forest with Shrek?”
Molly likes Shrek just fine, though, and soon he’s proclaiming her a “sex angel.” They see each other often, but she repeatedly refuses to spend the night with him, saying, “My life is complicated right now.” So he follows her home one night, and while doing some closer surveillance the next day gets spotted by Molly’s son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill, playing it serious). Cyrus invites John in to wait for Molly, offering to play him his self-composed trance-y music (one of the film’s funniest scenes) and asking if he’ll stay for dinner. When Molly comes home, she’s surprised but doesn’t ask any questions right away (one of the film’s few unrealistic moments).
Cyrus then proceeds more like a mystery than a rom-com. Molly’s kid acts levelheaded and welcoming until he doesn’t; Molly defends their unconventional relationship—they wrestle as though Cyrus is a toddler. John is polite for only so long and confronts Molly and Cyrus about their weird behavior. But answers, at least plausible ones, are scant.
Even though there’s a lot more plot, and life, to Cyrus, it still bears a few precious hallmarks of a Duplass film. It takes only seconds for their camera to start wavering and zooming abruptly in and out, which adds nothing in terms of meaning and makes you wish the camera had at some point swerved violently enough to whip around and clock its operator. There’s a scene in which conversation is heard in voice-over as we look at the couple apparently addressing each other but not moving their mouths. And awkwardness abounds: John interrupting Molly’s flirtation at the party to drunkenly warble “Don’t You Want Me” as others gawk with obvious pity; the stalking; a first dinner in which Cyrus tells John, “Don’t fuck my mom.”
The last is softened with “That’s my attempt at humor, John,” but as with the bulk of the film, you’re sometimes not sure whether it’s a joke or not. There are more certain laughs to counter the creepiness, especially when the Duplasses allow Reilly and Hill to improv (another of their filmmaking standbys). Reilly’s charm perhaps pushes itself through a little too much to make you believe he’s such a loser, but when he calls Cyrus “a little weirdo,” there’s both levity and bite. And Hill makes Cyrus a freak who, taken dryly, can be as funny as his wackier Apatovian characters. Mumblecore may have been hailed as refreshing realism, but here its reigning kings prove that a more mainstream approach can likewise balance seriousness with comedy, mix tight plotting with looseness, and generally move the way life does.