Cyrus
R1 - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (15th February 2011).
The Film

“Cyrus” isn’t very funny. Which is weird, since it’s being marketed as the latest – and greatest – outrageous comedy with “funny” stars like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. The folks at Fox Searchlight seem to think that their production of this Duplass Brothers feature is “Stepbrothers 2: Rise of the Evil Stepson” (an entirely fictitious film that “Cyrus” certainly is not), and that’s sort of odd because, even though “Cyrus” isn’t all that funny, it’s still a pretty good movie.

John C. Reilly is John; a loner, loser and freelance editor, seven-years divorced from his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who’s still his best friend. The film subtly suggests that John has always assumed that he and his ex would get back together so he’s been out of the dating scene for years just waiting; too bad Jamie’s just told him she’s getting married to Tim (Matt Walsh). Realizing that he’ll be alone forever unless he attempts to change, John attends a party at the suggestion of Jamie, where he bombs out with various women who find him strange and creepy. That is, until he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), a slight, direct woman who is, despite his general awkwardness, attracted to him.

They hit it off. Molly likes John because he seems real, honest and not afraid to express himself (on their first real date, John admits that he sees the two going far together; Molly agrees). John likes Molly because, well, she’s attractive, smart and, most importantly, she’s the first woman since Jamie to give him a second look. Unfortunately for both of them, Molly has a 22-year-old son named Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home and doesn’t like strangers around his mom. The original tagline for “Cyrus” – before it was sanitized for mass consumption – was, “Seriously, don’t f**k his mom”, and that just about does it. Cyrus is over protective, quite weird, maybe a little dangerous, and he definitely doesn’t take kindly to men-folk around his momma.

At first John thinks that Molly’s son is pretty normal. But, as Cyrus begins acting out in subtle ways – like stealing John shoes the first night he stays over – John is sure that Molly’s offspring has it out for him. Random night terrors become a sudden and “real” problem for Cyrus, who plays the victim to win sympathy and affection from Molly; affection that John would have otherwise received. And when John begins voicing his thoughts on Cyrus’ personality and behavior, Cyrus vanishes for an entire day – much to the worry of his mother, who blames John – and then turns up to announce that he’s moving out. With Cyrus out of the picture, John hopes that he and Molly can have a more natural relationship, which they do until Cyrus – claiming to have had a severe panic attack – moves back in, thoroughly disrupting their domestic bliss. Armed with his skills as a master manipulator, Cyrus squares off with an increasingly agitated John as the two men fight it out over the woman they both love.

“Cyrus” was written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, filmmakers who dabble in the world of “mumblecore” – a term that I hate, coined by Eric Masunaga to describe a particular subgenre, and popularized by film critics needing a new word to describe the relatively-recent string of independently produced, low-budget, improvisational dramas that started popping up at the turn of the 21st century. The brothers have a specific style and “Cyrus” fits the definition of that unmentionable word almost perfectly. To that end, the film employs a variety of unconventional techniques to shape the narrative and photographic style. The Duplass Brothers only loosely “wrote” the script, and instead largely let the plot and dialog go improvised on set by actor John C. Reilly and his opposing on-screen co-star (either Hill or Tomei). And while this mostly works – in fact, Reilly and Tomei’s scenes together are exquisite for their earnestness and seemingly raw realism – it does pose an interesting problem for viewers in that “Cyrus” lacks a plot for most of it’s first hour, and only comes together in the final thirty-or-so minutes because logic drives it there.

The improvisational style lends itself to the trappings of verité cinema, which is both good and bad. The Duplass’ camera is almost always handheld, with little zooms tightening in on actors as they hold conversations, and sometimes dipping focus to draw attention away or toward actions at the edges of the frame. Like most about the film this often works, but sometimes it doesn’t. In a wide shot of Molly and Cyrus at the park, the camera sudden pans off and “notices” John – who’s pretending to have stumbled upon the other two – running up to them. The cinematography works in that scene, but not so well in others. During many of the long, free form conversations indoors – on couches or in small rooms – the camera keeps panning and zooming in and out, for little to no reason. It’s perfectly possible in most of the indoors scenes to frame the actors within the frame comfortable, so the zooms seem overindulgent and they remain my only real gripe with “Cyrus”.

Like the film that bares his name, Cyrus himself is sort of an enigma. Although played well by Jonah Hill (who actually acts in this film), it isn’t until about 45-minutes in that you’re finally sure of Cyrus’ intentions. He could be an idiot, a social-retard, a maniacal genius, or just a troubled guy who loves his mom a little too much (and maybe, he’s all of those things). Likewise, the film doesn’t directly spell it out, and instead kind of just plods along letting things happen. “Cyrus” is less of a comedy and more a small, occasionally humorous drama about families, the people in them, and a three-way-relationship that struggles to stay together, but it is nonetheless very good, and definitely worth a watch.

Video

The dual layered DVD-9 features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, with slight letter boxing on the top and bottom of the image to preserve the film’s original aspect ratio within a 16x9 frame.

As a Duplass-helmed mumblecore feature (damn, I used that term again), “Cyrus” sports a typically rough, almost voyeuristic aesthetic. Most of the film is shot handheld, with zooms-a-plenty, in natural light, on low-budget digital video. The end credits list the feature as being “Shot on RED” so the term low-budget doesn’t necessarily translate to “poor image” (the RED One is a perfectly fine camera that often delivers excellent results), but the digitally sourced “Cyrus” isn’t a knockout in standard def. The source is clean, DNR and edge enhancement aren’t an issue, colors are naturalistic, detail is sometimes impressive for 480i – especially exteriors like the park and wedding scenes – and the black level is always strong. But “Cyrus” suffers from a series of increasingly irritating issues that really speak to the inferiority of the standard def format it’s delivered on.

The labored DVD format just can’t handle the complexity of the photography, frequently giving way to some massive banding issues in a handful of low-lit interiors (the blue walls during John confrontation with Cyrus in the bedroom-turned office are awash with poor color gradations) and compression noise is often present in many scenes. Moiré artifacts on the blinds in the same “confrontation scene” are problematic as well, and aliasing issues also crop up on too-intricate patterns that are just poorly resolved in SD. To be fair, “Cyrus” probably doesn’t look all that hot in high definition either, simply because of the verité-style cinematography by Jas Shelton, but I imagine that the Blu-ray format at least improves in the few key areas where the DVD fails.

Audio

Intimate and ultra-realistic, “Cyrus” is full of naturally recorded sound – which, due to the subject matter usually means hushed conversations, whispered arguments, and long stretches of soft-spoken, improvised dialogue. And all of that doesn’t really make for a compelling soundtrack. I’m sure that the English Dolby Digital 5.1 (48kHz/448kbps) mix perfectly replicates the original recordings, but there isn’t much to talk about because said material is so barren and stripped down. Dialogue is muffled at times, but is generally intelligible. Music – be it the acoustic score by Michael Andrews, Cyrus’ synth-heavy experimental compositions, or source music from the radio – is perfectly balanced within the mix and because it’s one of the few things layered into the soundtrack after the fact, it sounds best. Again, I don’t know how much better “Cyrus” could sound considering the origins of the film, but I have to assume that the Blu-ray improves somewhat – although perhaps not as much as the video. Optional French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mixes are also included, with subtitles available in English and Spanish.

Extras

This is a pathetically empty DVD. No audio commentary, no featurettes, no Q&A with the directors from SXSW (although, apparently, some of that stuff does appear on the Blu-ray); nothing really at all. Well that’s not entirely true… the lesser format does get a pair of worthwhile deleted scenes and a few theatrical trailers, but that’s it. All of the video-based extras are presented in fair-looking 16x9-enhanced widescreen.

Deleted scenes includes two scenes that were excised from the final cut of the film; writers/directors Jay and Mark Duplass offer optional introductions on both explaining why they were cut. First is “Puppet Movie”, a scene in which John performs a puppet show for Molly in hopes that it will move their relationship forward. The scene is funny and cute but not needed in the final cut (what was supplemented for this is much stronger). The director’s introduction runs 1 minute 29 seconds, while the actual deleted scene clocks in at 2 minutes 3 seconds. The second cut, “Cyrus Party” looks at Cyrus’ life away from Molly, in particular a party that he attends after moving out of the house. The director’s introduction runs 1 minute 25 seconds, while the actual deleted scene clocks in at a whopping 6 minutes. Like the other deletion this is good, but rightfully cut because of tone.

A theatrical trailer for “Cyrus” (2 minutes 19 seconds) is also included.

And finally there are a few pre-menu and “Sneak Peek” bonus trailers for other Fox titles. A “Simple. Fast. Portable.” (48 seconds) Digital Copy promo, and trailers for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2 minutes 26 seconds), “Conviction” (2 minutes 22 seconds) and “The League: Season One” (29 seconds) play before the menu. “Sneak Peeks” houses a few additional trailers: the timely “The Jones” (2 minutes 24 seconds), the action-romp “Knight & Day” (2 minutes 27 seconds) and “Never Let Me Go” (2 minutes 32 seconds).

Overall

“Cyrus” really isn’t that funny. More of a dramedy (with emphasis on the drama part) than the comedic-leaning trailers would suggest, in “Cyrus” the Duplass Brothers nevertheless produce a film that has a surprisingly potent mix of realism, cynicism, and sentimentality that somehow works even though it probably shouldn’t. Seasoned pros like Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly and Catherine Keener give excellent performances, while Jonah Hill actually acts for once. “Cyrus” isn’t the film I expected, but it’s definitely good. Unfortunately, the DVD is pretty average looking and barely has any extras. Recommended, but strictly for the film.

The Film: B Video: C+ Audio: C Extras: D- Overall: C+

 


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