Mark Duplass is the Big Man on Campus of Sundance 2010. The actor (Hannah Takes the Stairs, The League on FX) and director (he collaborated with brother Jay on features The Puffy Chair and Baghead, as well as countless shorts) produced three narrative features premiering here, including NEXT titles Bass Ackwards and The Freebie (directed by Duplass' League co-star and wife, Katie Aselton) and Lovers of Hate, a triumph of uncomfortable comedy competing for the US Dramatic jury prize.
All of which pales in significance to Cyrus, the Mark and Jay's third full length-directorial effort, and a powerful symbol of Sundance as a festival at a crossroads. Produced and soon to be distributed by Fox Searchlight (the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno), Cyrus' very existence validates both Sundance for "discovering" the Duplasses and supporting their work for nearly a decade, as well as the mumblecore style that the brothers' films helped to popularize. In pushing the usual Duplass style into the realm of the male bonding/battle comedy most often associated with Judd Apatow, Cyrus feels like a scientific experiment: what happens when a cinema developed within economic limitations is given the new limitation of guaranteed dissemination into the mainstream?
If it's somewhat surreal to sit down to a Duplass Brothers film and have it preceded by the Fox Searchlight logo and trumpet-and-drumbeat theme, the opening scene following that corporate stamp offers a sensation that could only be described as uncanny. A beautiful woman encounters a scruffy manboy, and they proceed to have an argument about his inability to meet her expectations. It all looks and feels familiarly low fi--almost like a sequel to The Puffy Chair, catching up on that film's couple long after they've broken up and have managed to stay friends twenty years later. Except for the fact that the woman is played by Catherine Keener, and the man is played by John C. Reilly, and even though neither is a massive star outside of Indiewood, within this context their faces feel so larger-than-life that the classic Duplass anticipatory zooms take on a whole new quality of invasive creepiness.
Reilly's schlubby, self-loathing John has been divorced from the glamorous, confident Keener for seven years, but they've remained close friends. When her new boyfriend proposes, John's ex-wife decides it's time for John to take off his stained sweatshirt and get back in the game. At a party, after many drinks and a dance-off to Human League, John hooks up with Molly (Marisa Tomei), a "sex angel" with a surprising capacity to overlook John's many flaws. But after she leaves his house cagily, John follows Molly home, and finds that his new love interest lives with, and is unusually close to, her 21 year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill). "You deserve someone who can love you the way I can't love you," Cyrus tells his mother, while behind her back working a number of minor manipulations to try to break up the happy couple.
In an interesting deviation from the usual slow-build of such improv-infused material, some of Cyrus' most sincere scenes are presented as music montages; the conversation stays constant, while visual cutaways fill the scene in with peripheral context. Disorienting but effective, it's an ambitious choice for the Duplasses, who otherwise seem content to leave their visual signature unaltered by access to Fox Searchlight's resources.
You could say Cyrus looks ugly, but that ugliness is an artifact of a working method. This film, like The Puffy Chair and Baghead before it, plays out in a cinematographic style that privileges intimacy and immediacy over beauty, striking a note somewhere in between the cool observation of a Dardennes film and the joke-dar of The Office. The filmmakers have made the authorial choice to not allow the high-profile platform change the way they work, and the way they work is about ceding design and perfection of the image to the demands of the story and the creation of the characters. All of which is to say that Cyrus is a movie starring movie stars, but it doesn't look much like one.
Which is not to say that nothing has changed. The exciting thing about truly independent film of any kind is the element of surprise. Puffy and Baghead, for all their respective merits and weaknesses, both trafficked in a kind of hostile unpredictability that, despite fascinating performances from (and chemistry between) Reilly and Tomei, is largely missing from Cyrus. I kept waiting for Hill to do something really unhinged, for the triangle between he and Reilly and Tomei to transcend realism for the kind of anarchic hyperrealism that made The Puffy Chair the minor revelation that it at first seemed to be (The same spark animates Duplass production Lovers of Hate.) Unfortunately nothing all that weird ever happens in Cyrus. This is certainly part of the point -- Hill's behavior is maddening in part because it's so mundane, which is a very Apatovian -- but Cyrus is a duller film for it.
Tags: baghead, cyrus, duplass, fox searchlight, jay duplass, judd apatow, mark duplass, mumblecore, the duplass brothers, the puffy chair