"It's nice to be liked/But it's better by far to be paid," sang Liz Phair rather prophetically (or perhaps predictively) in "Shitloads of Money." It's a sentiment with which many a struggling artist has probably grappled. The dichotomy has got to be even stronger for budding filmmakers; there are still jackpots to be had. We'd all like some of that Apatow money, now wouldn't we?
The Duplass Brothers are two of the leading (if not most distinguished) figures in an American film genre that bears the unfortunate, but now widely recognized label, "Mumblecore." It must have been thrilling when their first full-length feature, The Puffy Chair, was picked up by the Sundance Film Festival. An audience award at SXSW followed. However, the film's $198 thousand gross (on the upside, the film's reported budget was something shy of 16K) probably won't be sending lots of Duplass progeny off to fancy schools. Nor will it buy much in the Hollywood Hills.
Fortunately, the boys have hit the big time, sort of. They've moved up to a semi-major studio (Fox Searchlight) and been given a budget of $7 million to produce Cyrus. They have been able to hire semi-major and semi-marketable stars: John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill, the latter being the round presence in so many of those Apatow movies. Unfortunately, after a promising start, Cyrus meanders to a muddled place somewhere between Mumblecore candor and mainstream safety.
Cyrus begins like so many of those indie films by Mark and Jay Duplass and their cohorts. There's no big title sequence and accompanying music, just the title itself on screen in a business-like font. Enter Jamie (Catherine Keener), knocking repeatedly and then forcing her way into the messy domicile of ex-husband John (Reilly) where the music is blaring and the owner is nowhere to be found. She proceeds to a bedroom and finds her sad sack ex in flagrante delicto...with himself. Although it's been seven years since their divorce, he's having a hard time moving on. The embarassment is overcome and Jamie tells John that he has to get out of the house, has to accompany her and her fiancee to a party. The party goes about as well as one would expect for a depressed, needy man who looks like John C. Reilly. But in a moment of drunken felicity, Molly (Tomei) walks into his life (and also catches him with his member outside his pants). The charming, boozy dialog that follows, along with a subsequent Human League sing and dance along at party central, a sequence that pretty defty segues from embarassing to life-affirming, seem to fulfill the promise of two such relatively young filmmakers given the adequate resources to do their work. Those early scenes in Cyrus provide a satisfying melding of the emotional candor that is one of the hallmarks of the mublecore films with production values of a studio picture. So far, so good.
Much as he feels like he hit the lottery with the arrival of Molly in his life and bed, John is troubled by the fact that she won't stay the night. After her second such early exit, he follows her home (or stalks her home, as he later owns), where he is surprised to encounter Cyrus (Hill). And here the trouble begins, for filmmakers and audience alike.
Cyrus take pains to be polite to John at first, much to the relief of his mother, but we know the other shoe is soon to drop. Actually it doesn't so much drop as disappear. After his first sleepover at at Molly's, John awakens to find his sneekers missing. He later finds them in Cyrus' closet, the first salvo in a campaign of acting out that he hopes will drive the interloper away.