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"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.  

Molly and Cyrus share an intimacy, both physical  - John is stunned to see Cyrus walk into a bathroom in which Molly is showering and close the door; she then comes out in a towel without him - and emotional, that is, to say the least, unusual for mother and early-twenty-something son.  Not sure what to make of the two, John contrives a meeting between Jamie, Molly and Cyrus.   His benevolent ex pronounces them a nice family, "though the wrestling is a little weird."  Well, yes.

The problem is not just that Cyrus is (was) marketed as something basically funny, it's that the Duplasses, both writers and directors, don't seem to know what to do with the story they have put together.   One thing they seem sure of is a need to frequently send the frame lurching forward.   This, presumably, to keep things real, or foster an appropriate sense of unease in the audience.   Unfortunately, it merely produces the effect of a child overly enamored with a new toy, an effect that is fun for no one but the kid with the gadget.  Yes, that is a cool zoom, now could you please stop it, darling?

As for the story, it's begins as frank and rather likable courtship of two mid--40's people, emotionally wounded though they may be, and is invaded by Cyrus in more ways than one.    Despite the unnatural closeness of Molly and Cyrus, there's certainly no indication of the courage or style required to really examine the Oedipal undercurrent.   For that, see Spanking the Monkey or Murmur of the Heart.   As for the conflict between John and Cyrus, their explicit declarations of war notwithstanding, some sort of perverse, all-out battle between adult suitor and aggrieved son never fully ensues, despite one abortive brawl that essentially ruins the wedding of the long-suffering Jamie.   It's a comic take on latter at which trailers for Cyrus hinted and signs of which the Duplass' rather cheaply place throughout the film.   But both the filmmakers and cast play it quite straight.   The result is neither entertaining or particularly enlightening.  

Reilly, Tomei and Hill actually acquit themselves well, given the ever-shifting ground beneath their feet.  Jonah Hill manages to flesh out just a little new territory in his limited range.   He's not going to make anyone forget Ryan Gosling  - Gosling's vehicle, Lars and the Real Girl is the sort of brave and original film toward which Cyrus would seem to be groping -  but his performance has some admirable economy where lots of crazy excess would be an obvious move. 

Mark Duplass has spent some time in front of the camera himself, arguably doing better work there.  He was one of the principals in the Puffy Chair, and recently starred opposite Joshua Leonard in Lynn Shelton's Humpday.   Humpday, I believe, was marketed (in the limited advertising it was granted) as something of a yukfest, but that's not at all the case.   A potentially gimmicky storyline involving two thirty-something friends, one settling reluctantly into family life, the other having spent his first decade post college as something of a vagabond, who agree to make gay porn film - their angle is that it will be unusual for starring two straight guys - turns out to be an insightful examination of masculinity, identity and illusions thereof.

Humpday doesn't suffer from its foray into challenging subject matter.   Shelton obviously had a clear idea of what she was about.   One can't say the same thing about the brothers Duplass in their first studio film. 



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